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How do sperm banks work? What to know and what to expect

How do sperm banks work? What to know and what to expect

8 min read

This article was last updated March 12, 2021.

For some of us, our primary experience with sperm banks (also known as cryobanks) is through movies using sperm donation or artificial insemination as a plot device. In the real world, sperm banking is a common part of conception and fertility preservation.

So, what actually happens at a sperm bank and what can you expect from the insemination process? We’re here to give you all the details on sperm banks — along with a couple of insights from those who have experienced it firsthand.

Why use a sperm bank?

There are a plethora of reasons to opt for this particular aspect of reproductive medicine. Yes, sperm banks are often a part of getting pregnant — whether you're conceiving on your own, with a partner who has ovaries, or with a partner whose sperm you can't use (because of sperm health or recessive genetic conditions). But they're also used to help people preserve their sperm before transitioning or before cancer treatment.

If you're considering using donor sperm to conceive, you may find yourself asking a question that many people ask themselves on their assisted fertility journeys: Do I want to use an anonymous donor from a sperm bank or find a sperm donor I know?

There is no right answer — it’s a personal decision that’s completely up to you and your partner (if you have one). That being said, there are a few things you can consider to help you make that choice for yourself.

Using a known sperm donor

The Cooper Institute explains that you may go this route if you want your future child to know the sperm donor or have the opportunity to form a relationship with them. (This decision often involves consulting an attorney to prevent any custody issues that could arise from the situation, as well as a psychological consult.)

An important difference between finding a donor yourself and choosing a sperm bank is that sperm banks test donors for genetic disorders and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), so you’ll need to make sure that your donor gets appropriate tests on their own. Lastly, if you bring your own donated sperm to a cryobank so that you can undergo a fertility treatment, know that some may decline treatment or ask you to sign legal documents since they're not providing the donated sperm.

Using anonymous donor sperm from a sperm bank

Sperm banks already screen every sperm donation for genetic disorders and STIs, which may be easier for you than seeking out tests on your own. Also, if you don't want your child to have a relationship with their sperm donor, sperm banks already handle all of the legal paperwork that eliminates an anonymous donor’s parental rights.

How can you find a sperm bank that's right for you?

The first step is researching cryobanks, which are clinics where donated human tissues are stored. Because of the wonders of technology, you can search banks across the country without going anywhere. Here are a few things to keep in mind when weighing your options:

  1. Look for a large and reputable facility. “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," women’s health expert and author Dr. Sherry A. Ross explains. "Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to selecting a sperm bank.” If you need a little help narrowing down your options, the Human Rights Campaign and Donor Sibling Registry have guides with questions to ask sperm banks before signing up.
  2. Make sure they have a comprehensive donor screening process. “You want to make sure the sperm bank orders the genetic tests routinely done on women (a legal requirement in many states)," Dr. Ross says. "Also, getting a reliable medical history [of the donor] is an important part of the process.” This genetic testing includes everything from the general health of the sperm to any possible genetic conditions that the donor may carry. This information allows you to make the most informed decision before trying to conceive, and ensures you are more likely to have a healthy pregnancy and delivery.
  3. Get a second opinion if you need to. Katie, 42, turned to her OB-GYN for sperm bank suggestions and ended up going with their rec. “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," Katie writes. "Once I was accustomed to the site, the filtering process flowed quite intuitively, so I stuck with it."

What happens once you find a sperm bank?

After you've found the sperm bank you want to use, there are three major pieces of the process moving forward.

Selecting your sperm donor

A sperm bank helps you find the right donor sperm for your fertility journey. Reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Temeka Zore, MD, FACOG explains that before you schedule your first appointment, it's important to meet with your fertility specialist "to ensure you don't carry any recessive genetic diseases — and if you do, you should choose a donor who doesn't carry the same one."

Once you sign up online with a cryobank, the next step is selecting your donor. You can drill down your sperm donor search by browsing donor profiles with various personality and physical traits. From there, you can narrow it down even further based on super-detailed donor information, from family medical history and ethnicities to educational background and hobbies.

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," she says.

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." On top of all that, Amanda purchased additional info (medical history, childhood photos, and more) to narrow down their top three choices.

Prepping your sperm

It's important to know which fertility treatment you're planning on using so that the donor sperm samples can be prepared accordingly, before you pick it up or have it shipped to the facility of your choice. Intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) require “washed” sperm, which some banks offer as an add-on service. Since intracervical insemination (ICI), or at-home insemination, is done without supervision by a fertility clinic, there aren't regulations around the preparation of the sperm sample.

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." Using this high-quality selection of sperm improves chances of success with fertility treatment. Some banks offer different types of washing depending on the specifics of the conceiver's fertility treatment plan or the issues the donor could be facing, such as retrograde ejaculation.

Getting your sperm

Once you select your donor, you can either pick up the vials yourself from the cryobank or have them shipped to your facility. You, your OB-GYN, and/or your fertility specialist will take it from there. 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 at-home insemination.

Samantha, 39, picked her sperm vials 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," she explains. After about 10 minutes, the receptionist brought out a giant cardboard box and told Katie to head into the doctor's office. "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."

Does insurance cover donor sperm?

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 even 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.

Are there any special considerations for LGBTQ+ couples using sperm banks?

After having one child through donor sperm and IUI, Amanda and her wife have this advice to share: “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," she explains. "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."

Amanda adds that finding a community of other LGBTQ+ parents can help you feel a lot less alone during the process. (The online Modern Community has a dedicated channel for LGBTQ+ folks who are trying to conceive.) "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," she says.

Are sperm banks safe during COVID-19?

While the COVID-19 pandemic requires us to be a lot more cautious about entering any kind of medical facility, as long as the sperm bank is following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, it's totally safe. In fact, the demand for sperm from sperm banks in the US has sharply risen since the pandemic started.

While the science community’s understanding of the novel coronavirus is constantly evolving, there haven't been any documented cases of COVID-19 transmitting through sperm (the virus is largely transmitted via respiratory droplets). Still, new donors should be screened for COVID-19 along with infectious diseases (including STIs) and genetic disorders. It's up to individual sperm banks whether they’ll ship donor sperm to patients or allow patients to pick it up at the facility.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Temeka Zore, MD, FACOG, a fellowship-trained reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist and board-certified OB-GYN at Spring Fertility in San Francisco.

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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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