I’m Thinking of Using a Sperm Donor…How Does It Work?

Be honest: when we say “sperm donor,” do you immediately think of some broke college kid handing over a test tube of his best swimmers to some sketchy sperm bank in exchange for a quick buck? Because that’s pretty much the reputation sperm donors have in pop culture, and it’s not exactly the image you want to conjure up if you’re considering using donor sperm to make a baby.

So let’s get real about sperm donors: who they really are, how the donor selection process works, how much it’ll cost, and all the legal info you need to be aware of if you decide to go this route.

First of all, lots of people use them

According to Dr. Mark Leondires, reproductive endocrinologist and founder of Reproductive Medicine Associates of Connecticut, there are several different kinds of people who might need to use a sperm donor to get pregnant:

  • Heterosexual couples with a male partner who has a sperm abnormality (like low sperm count)
  • Heterosexual couples with a male partner who has a genetic abnormality that he doesn’t want to pass on to his children
  • Heterosexual couples with a male partner who is post-vasectomy or post-prostate cancer treatment
  • Lesbian couples
  • Single women pursuing parentage without a male partner

It might be a little like online dating

As far as actually finding a sperm donor, you basically have a choice between a known donor (like a family member or friend) and a sperm bank donor. If you’re going the sperm bank route, exactly how up-close-and-personal you’ll get with your donor’s identity/medical history depends on the bank and donor.

For example:

  • Some donors want to remain anonymous, while others are open to being identified in the event that any future children want to get in touch as they grow up.
  • Some banks offer extensive ways to search the donor database (using filters like height, hair color, and weight, or even personality traits), while others are more limited in their search functions.
  • Some banks screen for genetic conditions and mental health issues, but others do the bare minimum of health screenings required by the FDA (which amounts to a handful of STDs).

Selecting a donor can be a pretty overwhelming process, says Dr. Michael Grossman, reproductive endocrinologist at CNY Fertility in New York. He advises applying narrow filters to shrink the field of possibilities and not overthinking it too much (at the end of the process, you’ll just have to pick a donor either way).

You might want to think twice about using your male BFF’s sperm

In pop culture, it seems like women seeking sperm donors almost always turn to their best guy-pal for his sperm, since there’s no element of surprise there (in other words, no second-guessing if the anonymous sperm donor you chose is actually, like, the last person you would ever want to have a baby with).

But in reality, Dr. Leondires says this is the least common way of obtaining donor sperm, partly because of all the legal complications involved with using a known donor.

“Beyond the semen and fertility analysis, there’s a whole other layer of consent [when using a known donor],” he explains. “You need a mental health consultation to make sure everyone is on board with what’s best for the child, and a legal agreement to protect everyone’s rights.”

What kind of rights are we talking about?

  1. Yours, so you can maintain custody of your child as the sole parent or co-parent (with your spouse/partner) without worrying about the sperm donor suing for custody or parental rights later.
  2. Theirs, so your sperm donor can’t be sued for child support in the future.
  3. Your child’s, so they never have to be dragged into court for a painful custody battle between the parents who’ve raised them and their sperm donor.

Maybe your best friend from college or your partner’s brother really is the best choice for you, but don’t jump to that conclusion without considering how complicated it could be for all parties involved. Using a sperm bank means you don’t have to do any of this behind-the-scenes legwork yourself.

If you’re using a sperm bank, do your research

When it comes to selecting a donor from a sperm bank, unfortunately it can be something of a “buyer beware” situation. Some banks are more reputable than others, and there’s not a lot of industry regulation–which sometimes leads to incomplete screening of donors and less-than-virtuous business practices.

Basically, you need to get really, really familiar with how the bank you’re considering using operates: review all their legal policies and consent forms, ask about their record keeping and sibling tracking practices, investigate what kind of medical histories they collect and which medical conditions they test for, and ask around—in local infertility support Facebook groups, online consumer reviews, or a local RESOLVE chapter.

It won’t break the bank

Compared to other fertility treatments, paying for a sperm donor is somewhat affordable. Dr. Leondires says it can range from $500 to about $2,000, depending on whether you’re using an anonymous or known donor. The Sperm Bank of California, for example, details their fees as including registration, storage, and shipping costs (in addition to the $800 or so charged for the actual sperm).

Either way, you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket, since most insurance plans don’t cover any donor expenses. And remember that if you’re using a friend or family member as a donor, you’ll also be responsible for paying legal fees and the cost of a mental health consultation.

Don’t try insemination at home, kids

Technically, yes, you could do an insemination with your donor’s sperm from the comfort of your own home. However, Dr. Leondires warns that this can backfire big-time because in most states, home insemination voids all legal agreements designed to protect you. It’s strongly suggested that you leave the insemination to the professionals, especially since they have a better method: your doctor will be able to wash the semen away from the sperm and insert purified sperm into your uterine cavity (while timing it with your expected day of ovulation) for higher fertilization rates.

Disclaimer: it’s not 100% guaranteed to work

Unfortunately, just because you’re putting your donor sperm on a collision course with a ready-to-be-fertilized egg doesn’t mean a pregnancy will automatically happen. Dr. Grossman says that conception with donor sperm is not an instant success and can take a lot longer than people expect.

“Humans aren’t that good at reproducing, and frozen sperm is only half as successful as fresh sperm,” he explains.

You might not be super excited about it at first—but it could be awesome

Look, we know that using a sperm donor was probably not your Plan A, and having to adjust expectations can be disappointing and frustrating. Dr. Leondires stresses that these feelings are totally normal and it’s okay to seek out some mental health assistance if you’re really struggling to come around to the idea of using a sperm donor—there are professionals who can help you through the emotional aspects of the process, too.

And…now you’re an expert

There you have it: everything you could ever possibly need to know about using a sperm donor and maybe even some stuff you didn’t know you needed to know. If you think you’re at a point in your infertility journey where a sperm donor may be your best bet, make an appointment with a reproductive endocrinologist who can advise you on the next steps.

Sarah Bradley

Sarah Bradley is a freelancer writer from Connecticut, where she lives with her husband and three sons. Her reported features and personal essays in the parenting and women's health spheres have appeared at On Parenting from The Washington Post, Real Simple, Women's Health, Parents, Lifehacker's Offspring, and Romper, among others.