What to Expect: Sperm Banks 101

For some of us, our only experience with sperm banks (also known as cryobanks) is through pop culture. The nitty-gritty process of artificial insemination is an instigating event that leads to emotional fallout, such as in the Oscar nominee The Kids Are All Right and Jennifer Lopez’s romcom The Back-up Plan, or riffed on as a comic moment in a crude comedy like Delivery Man. What happens before you meet with Dr. Mindy Lahiri at her posh OBGYN office? Well, we’re here to give you the details — along with a couple of those who have experienced it firsthand.

Why a sperm bank?

There are a plethora of reasons to opt for a sperm bank, from solo conceivers looking for a helping hand to queer families who would prefer an anonymous donor. Transgender young adults may also decide to bank their sperm before transitioning, as well as male cancer patients before beginning treatment. There are also folks whose male partners are dealing with issues of infertility, from low testosterone to enlarged veins in the scrotum.

How to choose the right bank for you

As it turns out, this is a multi-step process. The first step is researching cryobanks, and because of the wonders of technology, you can log on and search banks across the country. Dr. Sherry A. Ross, women’s health expert and author of she-ology. The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period., explains: “You want to make sure the sperm bank orders the genetic tests routinely done on women (a legal requirement in many states) . Also, getting a reliable medical history is an important part of the process.” These tests include everything from the general health of the sperm to any possible genetic conditions that the donor may carry.

Ross adds, “When choosing a sperm bank, it’s important to find a large and reputable facility. There are many in the US, and since there is little regulation or oversight it can be confusing which lab to select. Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to selecting a sperm bank.” The Human Rights Campaign has a guide with questions to ask sperm banks before signing up, as does the Donor Sibling Registry.

Everyone has different reasons for choosing a particular cryobank. Katie, 42, found hers through her OBGYN, who suggested the bank she eventually chose. “I did not look further than that one because it was the name that kept coming up (coast to coast) in all the conversations I had, save for my Australian friend, and once I was accustomed to the site, the filtering process flowed quite intuitively, so I stuck with it,” she writes.

Coincidentally, Katie is a casting director, so selecting a donor wasn’t unlike her day job — “looking at thumbnail photos of profiles, pouring over ‘resumes’ and narrowing down the options” is something she does every day for actors. “Online was perfect for how I needed to organize my search and narrow down my options.”

Amanda, a 36-year-old mother of one, and her wife first went to a cryobank in 2014. “We chose ours mostly because we liked the comprehensive medical background they do on each donor. They also offer facial maps, childhood photos, and voice recordings,” she writes. “We did our entire process online. Which I very much enjoy. We browsed through many potential donors and found a few that most matched what we were looking for and then I purchased additional information (medical history/childhood photos, etc.) on our top three choices before choosing one.”

Once you sign up online with a cryobank, you can drill down your search based on various personality and physical traits, and from there, you can narrow it down based on any number of details, from body type to religion and their family’s medical history, and even things like their educational background and hobbies.

One little known fact is that you should know what procedure you're planning to use them for, so that the sperm can be prepared accordingly before you pick it up or have it shipped to the facility of your choice. Intrauterine insemination (IUI) requires “washed” sperm, which some banks offer as an add-on service. The Fertility Center of California explains, “Sperm washing not only removes chemicals that can cause complications, but also can remove sperm with low motility or dead sperm. With lower quality and dead sperm removed, chances are improved for a successful assisted reproductive procedure because the remaining sperm are faster and healthier.” Some banks offer different types of washing depending on the IUI technique the conceiver will be using or the issues the donor could be facing, such as retrograde ejaculation.

What are special considerations for queer families?

Amanda and her wife have one child from an IUI procedure, and she has plenty of tips for queer families looking into cryobanks. “The biggest thing I would recommend is thinking long and hard whether you want a donor who is open to being found in the future or not. Otherwise, the good news is that in general these kinds of places are very accustomed to all kinds of families and individuals and to people who have struggled to get pregnant so they tend to be very kind, open, and wish you well. Also, if you can find a community of other LGBTQ+ parents to ask questions it can really help you feel less alone during the process, because inevitably you will get invasive questions from people who do not realize how rude they are being and it can start to wear you down. Have people you can vent to about that.”

Your first appointment

Once you pick your donor, you can either pick up the vials yourself from the cryobank or have them shipped to the facility of your choice. Samantha, 39, picked hers up from the cryobank herself to keep until she was ready to see her doctor. “I am glad I went to pick them up because it was good for me to visualize where it was coming from, and to see some of the people working there. It demystified it for me,” she writes. “I was expecting something more doctor’s office-like, but it was in a nondescript building in an office complex. I went into a room, where there was this window, and I just told them I was picking up my containers, and they brought it to me. It was very low-key, and no stress.”

Katie’s experience was similarly uneventful. “It looked like any other California one-story office building. There were some corporate-looking couches, and a reception desk. I told the receptionist why I was there (I had an appointment), and she asked me to wait. About 10 minutes later, she emerged with an enormous brown cardboard box and told me to head directly to the doctor’s office where the sperm would be spun once I was ready to inseminate. Inside the box, I later learned, was an enormous urn containing vials of my sperm and a host of dry ice. I strapped the tank into the backseat of my Prius, and headed to the doctor's office.”

From there, it’s up to you, your OBGYN, and/or your fertility specialist. If you decide to do the insemination at home, your cryobank will usually offer, at the very least, a needleless syringe and instructions; you can also buy at-home insemination kits online. It’s also possible to work with a midwife to facilitate an at-home IUI.

Does insurance cover it?

Insurance coverage varies by employer and state, which you can read about here. None of the people we interviewed had more than blood work covered, if that.

Samantha writes. "Everything else I paid for out of pocket. I ended up doing IUIs, and knew that I wanted to do everything at a younger fertility age so I could keep the costs down.”

For Amanda, “our insurance covered nothing until I was actually pregnant. The two vials of sperm used for the first insemination round (two IUIs in a row in the two days I was ovulating) were about $1,700... I don't remember the cost of the rest of the process, but we had blood tests and ultrasounds beforehand and then there were the costs of the two IUIs all out of pocket.” Katie ended up spending “in the neighborhood of 10K,” and she opted out of trying anything beyond an IUI.

Sperm banks are a pricey but valid option for anyone looking into assisted reproductive technology, and the vast wealth of data at your fingertips is dizzying. Luckily, Modern Fertility is here to help with all of your questions and concerns, as well as those little boosts of inspiration you need to continue on your quest.

Jenni Miller

Jenni Miller's writing about movies, TV, sex, love, death, video games, and assorted weirdness is online and in print.

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