For men who experience infertility, the use of donor sperm to fertilize an egg is a safe and reliable means to parenthood. “When male partners have azoospermia (absence of sperm) or extremely low sperm counts, using a sperm donor can help couples conceive which otherwise may not get an option to do so,” says Dr. Natalie Crawford, a fertility specialist and health educator in Austin, Texas.
How do you know if using donor sperm is the best option for you? And what is it like to use a sperm donor? Here’s how these men experienced it.
‘Whether or not they share my DNA isn’t the end-all, be-all’
Stefan (last name withheld for privacy reasons) knew in advance that he and his wife would need help getting pregnant. “We knew early on it was the route we were gonna have to go. Fertility issues run deep on my wife’s side of the family.” At the fertility clinic, both were tested, and he learned that his sperm count was low.
The 43-year-old Ohioan was in a unique position, having taken a job at the clinic as a scheduler and later doing administrative work for nurses. “Working there took away the stigma,” he tells Yahoo Life. “Getting help is what the clinics are there for.” Not only did he feel comfortable seeking that help, but he didn’t feel alone in the process of selecting a donor.
“I talked to my best friend about it,” Stefan says. “I felt like I had some support. My wife and I asked him to be the donor [which is considered a known donor, typically a family member or friend who voluntarily donates their sperm], but the plan fell through due to bad timing.”
They selected an anonymous donor and, fortunately, Stefan’s wife was able to use her eggs with the assistance of medication. After getting pregnant, they learned they were having have twins. “We were the oddity. Everyone assumes if you go to a clinic, you will have multiple kids. But most pregnancies at the clinic are single.” His twins, now 4 years old, were born at just 25 weeks, and each weighed less than 2 pounds. “It was touch-and-go for a while,” he says. “We spent 112 days in the NICU. It was a rough time, but we made it through and have great kids.”
For Stefan and his partner, their priority, like most parents, is the happiness and health of their kids. “At the end of the day, we want our kids to know they are loved,” he says. “Whether or not they share my DNA isn’t the end-all, be-all. Using a donor helped me become a parent, and I wouldn’t be the parent I am today without it.”
‘In all honesty, the thought of another man’s sperm in her was the hard part’
John O., who resides in Seaford, England, visited a fertility clinic for testing after four years of trying to conceive naturally. For the 49-year-old, the decision to seek help was a “relief and heartache at the same time.” His partner received a positive result from testing and was deemed fertile, but after various tests John himself received an assessment of low fertility. “I had next to no healthy sperm,” he says. “Possibly genetic, possibly lifestyle and age.”
It was John’s partner who suggested using donor sperm. “I was reticent at first. But then I warmed to the idea,” he tells Yahoo Life. “In all honesty, the thought of another man’s sperm in her was the hard part.” His partner assured him it was “just medical assistance.”
John and his partner attempted artificial insemination, but it didn’t work. Unable to afford in vitro fertilization, his partner’s next suggestion was natural insemination”, as in trying to conceive through sexual intercourse with a sperm donor. “The intrusion bothered me and the idea of another man having an orgasm to help us felt weird,” he admits. “I thought long and hard on it. And while it wasn’t easy to agree to, I wanted to make her happy.”
It took them six weeks to select a donor for natural insemination, using websites like JustABaby.com and PollenTree.com. “A few donors flaked out, and we ditched a few before meeting,” John says. But eventually they agreed on a donor. Unfortunately, natural insemination didn’t work. In a few months, they plan to look for a new donor to try natural insemination again. “Then, if no joy, we will adopt.”
‘We tried our best to find someone with a physical resemblance to me’
Jon in Southern California decided to use donor sperm after a visit to a fertility clinic revealed he had an extremely low sperm count. After examining his medical history, the doctors connected his infertility to an illness in his early 20s.
Jon decided against attempting to increase his sperm count with medical assistance; he and his partner wanted to pursue the fastest route to pregnancy. “We both wanted a child,” he says, “and a sperm donor was the quickest way to do it.”
Jon and his partner spent a week searching through a donor book. “When we looked through the book, we tried our best to find someone with a physical resemblance to me,” he tells Yahoo Life. “You get numbers and facts but no picture. We went back and forth asking, ‘How about this one?’” After settling on a donor, they received three vials of sperm. “Using a donor didn’t bother me. I knew I was going to love whatever we had. I didn’t think it needed to be my DNA,” he adds.
The first and second vials didn’t work. They agreed that if the third vial didn’t work, they would pursue adoption. Fortunately, it did, and his partner got pregnant — just as COVID-19 shut down the world. “Talk about ways to bind two people together,” Jon says. “She was super-pregnant, and we were isolated. We had our child in the middle of COVID. All three of us isolated in the house.”
Does he wish he had more support in terms of going through infertility? “I was totally OK with it,” he says. “It turns out our child is the most amazing thing ever. That might not have happened with my own DNA. I’m happy with the results. I can’t tell you how often people come to me — people who have no idea we used a donor — and tell me my daughter looks like me. We never correct them.”
What fertility experts say
Risks involved in using donor sperm are managed by intense screening of donors. “Medical screening of sperm donors is performed under the direction of the FDA,” says Dr. Quinton Katler, a reproductive endocrinologist in Atlanta. “FDA screening includes a donor physical exam, donor questionnaire, medical history review and a sperm quarantine period with repeat infectious disease testing.”
An advantage of using donor sperm is it can provide a faster router to pregnancy than attempting to raise extremely low sperm counts. “Couples may decide that using a sperm donor makes the most sense versus coming off some medications and waiting three to six months to see if sperm counts improve,” says Crawford.
Other issues to consider when using donor sperm include selecting a sperm bank and finding a support network. “There are many different types of sperm banks,” says Crawford, “and the most important thing is to choose one that is approved by the FDA. Other considerations include: Is the donor willing to be identified in the future — this may be important to a future child — and are there limitations to the number of families a single donor can contribute to?”
When using donor sperm it’s important to seek help beyond a partner. “Emotional support for fertility treatment can be achieved through multiple modalities, including support groups and counseling,” says Katler. Space also needs to be made to process feelings around not sharing the same genetics as the child. “It can be hard for either partner to feel not genetically connected to their offspring, and working through these potential feelings with a therapist can be very helpful,” says Crawford.