Taking it to the bank: a look into sperm donation

As a George Mason University Law School student, Bruce Austin* needed a way to make some extra cash. A flyer in his residence hall led Austin to a process that would make him $40,000 richer – sperm donation.

“A lot of people got these things … and were reading them and laughing about it,” said Austin, now a lawyer. “It was a big joke, and I was feeling the same way … but the flyer said something about making $250 to $300 a month by donating sperm.”

A donor is paid to submit sperm, formally called gamete donation, that may be used to fertilize an egg. Clinics distribute specimens worldwide to a variety of clients who are unable to have children on their own, including lesbians and women whose partners have been rendered infertile from disease or accidents.

Megan Taylor, who oversees sperm collection at the Fairfax Cryobank in Virginia, said men have about a 10 percent chance of gaining acceptance into the sperm donation program.

At that rate, prospective donors have slightly better odds of gaining acceptance into Harvard University than to the Cryobank’s program. And forget GPA, class rank and SAT scores. At the Cryobank, donors are graded on sperm count, mobility and volume.

Deborah Lloyd, the Cryobank’s marketing director, said about half of the center’s 30 active donors are students. About 120 people apply to be donors each month.

“People are drawn towards those with higher education,” Taylor said. “We actively pursue law students and medical school students.”

At the price of $200 per specimen, sperm donation is profitable for many young people.

“It allowed me to work less hours,” Austin said. “I was earning more money as a sperm donor than working part time at law firms.”

Austin estimated that he earned between $40,000 and $45,000 over three years by donating sperm.

“I leased a new Acura. I’ve gone on vacations. I’ve done all kinds of different things thanks to having extra cash around,” he said.

The donor application includes questions about a man’s sexual history and medical history, and his family’s medical history.

If a prospective donor’s initial application is accepted, he is invited to an interview, where he will leave a sperm specimen for analysis and be asked more questions about his medical history.

An applicant will provide several more samples before he is eligible to become a regular donor. If the lab determines that he does not carry diseases, his sperm is quarantined for six months.

Donors are required to remain sexually abstinent for two to four days before leaving a specimen, and are discouraged from using alcohol. They must donate once a week for six months.

“Most of our donors have to be pretty dedicated,” Taylor said.

She added that most donors choose to continue the program for longer than six months, with some participating as long as two or three years.

While some donors are looking for an easy way to make money, others want to help people who are unable to have children, Taylor said.

“Most people are inspired by the financial incentive, but some have a family experience,” Taylor said. “A lot of them do want to help people.”

Before selecting which donor’s sperm to use, clients see the medical history and personality profile of several men, who also submit an audio interview and even childhood photos.

Austin said he is not concerned that he probably has children.

“I feel really strongly and firmly in the idea that you’re environment plays the most significant role in determining who a person is,” Austin said. “I don’t think of them as being my kids at all.”

As for the actual donation process, men will first spend time at the Cryobank’s waiting room, which is adorned with inspirational posters that have phrases like “Cherish Today” in front of beautiful landscapes.

Patients are then shown to a “specimen room” – a small bathroom that contains a couch and a cabinet stocked with pornographic magazines, including what Austin called some “pretty hardcore” publications such as High Society and Barely Legal.

After cooling, the specimens are placed in a storage tank until a client purchases them. The storage unit contains more than 8,000 specimens, some of which have been around for 20 years.

Of course, for some individuals, the process of gamete donation still seems taboo.

“(Some) don’t want anyone to know what they’re doing, so they won’t mention it to a soul,” Taylor said.

Austin said he once jokingly told his girlfriend that he was considering applying to the sperm bank just to gauge her reaction.

“It wasn’t something she was in favor of because it was a serious relationship,” Austin said. “Despite that, I finished the process. That was the hardest thing – I never told her I went through with the actual process.”

*This person’s name has been changed for privacy reasons.

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