Amber Ferguson, Washington Post, October 21, 2022
Every night a little after 1 a.m., following her shift as a guard at a women’s prison, Reese Brooks would open her laptop, a second laptop, then her phone and a tablet, and begin scouring websites for sperm banks, opening dozens of tabs.
The websites offered hundreds of potential sperm donors, allowing Brooks to select for movie-star looks, height and hobbies, but when she filtered for Black or African American donors, her options swiftly dwindled.
The cryobanks gave Brooks a chance at motherhood, but they couldn’t provide what she wanted: a Black sperm donor who could give her a child that looked like her and shared her culture.
Cryobanks reported that the number of Black women seeking their services to conceive rose sharply during the pandemic after increasing steadily over the years. Black women between the ages of 35 and 45 are far more likely to remain unmarried than women from other racial groups, according to the latest Census data, with 44 percent of non-Hispanic Black women unmarried, compared to 16 percent of White women. Yet Black sperm donors represent just a fraction of available supply – less than 2 percent at the country’s four largest sperm banks, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
The severe shortage is forcing Black women who need donor sperm into a painful choice: Choose a donor of another race and raise a biracial child or try to buy sperm from unregulated apps and online groups.
The reasons for the shortage are myriad: failure among cryobanks to recruit Black donors; a selection process that demands a three-generation medical history (which may be challenging for Black men who may not have access to quality health care) and excludes donors with felony convictions; mistrust of the medical profession by Black men because of a legacy of historical discrimination.
The search for donor sperm usually takes place on a cryobank website where someone can browse profiles of available donors with limited personal and genetic information. Baby pictures of donors may be available for an additional fee.
On average, sperm is sold for $950-$1,300 per vial. Donors receive $70-$150 per donation. The cryobanks sell a fixed number of vials per donor to limit the number of children fathered by any one donor.
There are more than 20 cryobanks in the country, four of which have more than 100 donors. Among the four (California Cryobank, Fairfax Cryobank, Seattle Sperm Bank and Xytex) supply fluctuates, but as of Oct. 11 there were only 12 Black donors out of a total of 748. White and Asian donors are disproportionately represented, while Hispanic donors are also underrepresented.
Of 15 women who talked to The Post, only one was able to buy sperm and conceive a child with a Black donor.
The Black women detailed fierce competition on cryobank websites for vials from Black donors, which, they say, typically sell out within minutes.
Until the past few years, the fertility industry was marketed primarily to White people.
“If you went to any website for any fertility clinic in the United States before 2020, you actually very rarely saw any evidence of people who just by sight looked like a person of color on their websites, and there were no babies of color,” said Cindy Duke, a reproductive endocrinologist and virologist in Las Vegas. “There wasn’t much thought given that there may actually be a Black intended single mom or a Black same-sex female couple that’s in need of a Black donor,” Duke said.
Recruiting efforts for sperm donors were also targeted at White men, according to Duke, with cryobanks relying on social media, paid online ads and word of mouth to reach potential donors.
Now, however, the primary customers for many sperm banks are single women and same-sex couples of all racial groups. At the Sperm Bank of California, the country’s only nonprofit cryobank, about 20 percent of calls come from Black women, according to program director Kenya Campbell. Experts say the expansion of fertility insurance benefits is helping more women freeze their eggs and conceive children through reproductive technology.
The sperm banks say they have tried to recruit Black donors and want to meet their customers’ needs.
“Over the years, we have spoken to African American fraternities and student organizations to try to increase our number of applicants. This has not been very successful,” California Cryobank’s Shamonki said. She added that “it’s proven to be challenging to hit the right tone and appeal to these donors rather than further alienate them.”
The Sperm Bank of California has had similar challenges. “Folks felt our ads were a little too urban. And so we really work very hard to come up with images that we feel resonated with the donors,” Campbell said.
Seattle Sperm Bank said it tried giving out gift cards to a juice bar outside local gyms. Fairfax Cryobank said it tried pursuing a partnership with a Black male TikTok influencer but could not find the right fit. Xytex has recently opened two collection sites in Georgia that are close to HBCUs. They’ve seen an increase in Black donors over the past two years, but Mackenzie Ramsdell, senior clinic relations and digital marketing specialist at Xytex, said “it appears that demand is still outstripping supply.”
But the sperm banks face several challenges. Infertility remains a taboo topic in the Black community, Duke said. “We’re still not at a point yet where people are openly sharing that they’ve used donor gametes.”
And the cryobanks have to overcome a legacy of mistrust in the health-care system, said Dexter R. Voisin, dean of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.
That mistrust is “in part because of Tuskegee and other atrocities that have happened in the medical system, but also the many atrocities that are happening outside on a daily basis,” Voisin said.
Thomas, of ASRM, said cryobanks need to connect more deeply with Black communities, pay donors more and extend their outreach to places such as barbershops and local African American newspapers.
Cryobanks must also convince Black men that donating sperm is helping other people build families – and does not mean they are evading their responsibilities as a parent.
“It has been drilled into their psyche that Black men are not good fathers, they’re absent, they don’t go to the doctor, and now you turn around and tell them that they should now trust the medical industry with their genetics, and help create children they aren’t going to see. That’s a big obstacle,” said Regina Townsend, founder of the Broken Brown Egg, an infertility nonprofit organization for Black women.
The sperm banks said they are also bound by FDA regulations dating to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s that prohibit donations from any man who has had sex with another man within the past five years.
Campbell said that over the past three years, 10 percent of the 2,000 sperm donor applicants at the Sperm Bank of California were disqualified because of the FDA ban.
“About 20 of those were potential Black donors. And so for us, that was 20 opportunities that we could not even begin a process of simply because they were part of the LGBTQ community,” Campbell said.
Wahima Lino was about four days into injecting herself with hormones for an IVF cycle when her doctor told her: “Okay, it’s time to buy your sperm. We need it to be shipped here in two days.”
She had held off on buying sperm to avoid paying the storage fee. In a frenzy, the 39-year-old rushed back to her HR job, grabbed a co-worker friend and huddled in her cubicle, sifting through donor profiles.
“All the Black donors I was looking at before were gone,” Lino said.
Like many people, Lino, who is single and straight, used the pandemic to reflect on her life, and she decided to have a child on her own. She had suffered for years with painful, heavy periods caused by uterine fibroids, undergoing two procedures and a major reconstructive surgery in three years.
She spent 2021 coordinating with her insurance company, telling her family about her decision and looking for a Black sperm donor.
The daughter of a Belizean father and an African American mother, Lino wanted a shared identity with her child.
“I grew up knowing both sides of my family and both cultures,” Lino said. “I wouldn’t want my kid to start from scratch with understanding their culture.”
But by the time her doctor told her to buy sperm, all the donors she was previously interested in were sold out.