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The Sperm Kings Have a Problem: Too Much Demand

When I started talking to sperm banks last spring, they were already concerned about supply.

Reliable numbers are tough to find in Sperm World. Researchers cite data collected in the 1980s to estimate the number of children born by donor sperm in the United States at anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 a year, though advocates push back even on that range, saying there are no dependable figures because there is no regulation. Sperm banking itself was about a $4 billion industry in 2018.

There have always been infertile straight couples in need of donor sperm, but with the legalization of gay marriage and the rise of elective single motherhood, the market has expanded over the last decade. About 20 percent of sperm bank clients are heterosexual couples, 60 percent are gay women, and 20 percent are single moms by choice, the banks said.

To meet this demand, men provided sperm at a steady rate for years, some banks said. But the coronavirus changed things. Existing donors were scared to go in. New donor sign-ups stopped for months during lockdown and never really bounced back at some banks. Several banks said that they had a lot of old frozen sperm in storage, but that it could last only so long.

“Donor recruiting is a growing challenge,” said Scott Brown, vice president of strategic alliances for California Cryobank. “And I would definitely say people are still very interested in having children.”

Many people also want smart sperm. That’s why some big banks are near elite colleges. They have sperm collection centers in Palo Alto, Calif., near Stanford University, and Cambridge, Mass., near Harvard. College men are one of the most reliable groups to see the potential chaos of creating maybe 50 biological children around the world in exchange for about $4,000 over several months — and decide it is a good deal.

A donor would usually go to a bank once or twice a week over months to produce enough sperm to sell to dozens of families.

“A lot of their recruiting goes on around fraternities, but fraternities aren’t getting together,” said Rosanna Hertz, chair of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College and co-author of “Random Families,” a book on donor conception. “People want college-educated sperm, so to speak.”

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