The coronavirus pandemic may not have triggered a baby boom, as some initially predicted it might, but the demand for sperm donations has skyrocketed regardless. Yet the supply can barely keep up, and that’s caused some would-be mothers to explore unconventional alternatives to find acceptable donors.
The primary reason for the shortage of sperm donations shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has spent the better part of a year quarantining at home. Quite simply, men aren’t venturing out as often and, thus, haven’t been donating sperm as frequently during the pandemic—even as the demand has spiked at many sperm banks across the U.S.
“We’ve been breaking records for sales since June worldwide not just in the U.S.—we’ve broken our records for England, Australia, and Canada,” Angelo Allard, compliance supervisor of Seattle Sperm Bank, told the New York Times. Allard said that Seattle Sperm Bank, one of the country’s largest, is currently selling 20% more sperm now than a year ago.
But there are also less sperm donations to be deposited.
“Between our three locations, I’ll usually have 180 unique donors donating,” Allard said. “I’m down to 117. The other month it was 80. I don’t have any indication it’s going to be a positive trend.”
The pandemic has undeniably caused an increase in sperm demand, as many couples who have put off family planning suddenly have different priorities.
But even before the pandemic, the market for sperm banks has been growing over the past decade, primarily due to the legalization of gay marriage and because the stigma of elective single motherhood is being dispelled. According to the sperm banks interviewed by the Times, heterosexual couples make up about only 20% of sperm bank clients while 60% are gay women and 20% are single mothers.
Men had been providing sperm at a steady rate to keep up with the demand over the past several years until the coronavirus effectively put a screeching halt on the industry. Now, existing donors are hesitant to visit banks, while signups for new sperm donations have languished during the lockdown and have never really picked back up again.
“Donor recruiting is a growing challenge. And I would definitely say people are still very interested in having children,” Scott Brown, vice president of strategic alliances for California Cryobank, told the Times.
Many sperm banks also tend to set up shop geographically close to elite colleges and universities because women like to shop for “smart” sperm. It also stands to reason that young, college-aged men don’t think about the long-term impacts of having an unknown number of children out in the world—beyond the immediate financial windfall. But even that avenue has dried up, so to speak.
Strict Food and Drug Administration directives have also been hurting struggling sperm banks. Sperm is required to have a six-month quarantine following every donation, and each time a batch is released, the donors must come in for blood testing. Most banks also set limits on the number of times a donor can contribute to 25-30 families to prevent “widespread genetic concerns” later on.
Because many sperm donors are sold out or on waitlists—not to mention that a single vial could cost over $1,000 at premium banks—some women and families are finding other ways to conceive.
Popular Facebook groups boasting tens of thousands of members, such as “Sperm Donation USA” and “USA Sperm Donation,” offer women what sperm banks cannot and are often free of charge other than travel costs. Likewise, websites and apps such as Modamily, Just a Baby, and Known Donor Registry operate with members facilitating the giving and receiving of sperm or those looking to share parenting arrangements.
These so-called “megadonors” can fly under FDA rules and other guidelines such as family limits. And unlike a sperm bank, women can also ascertain the identities of the donors when they’re arranging the donations—which can be conducted either by artificial or “natural” insemination,” aka sexual intercourse.
Of course, there are high legal risks for both parties involved in these transactions. A mother could potentially ask for child support, or a donor might demand custody. However, for many women who cannot afford traditional sperm banks or aren’t in a position to wait out the pandemic, the risk is worth the reward.