Sperm donation, also known as sperm cell donation, is the process by which a man donates his sperm so that it can be later used by another man, woman, or couple undergoing a fertility treatment with the purpose of achieving a pregnancy.
If donor sperm is used, then either artificial insemination (AI) or in vitro fertilization (IVF) can be carried out. The cost of donor-sperm insemination is lower than that of donor-sperm IVF, given that IUI is a simpler technique.
Also, donor sperm can be used directly at a clinic or for home insemination. There exist donor sperm banks which ship semen samples worldwide, being the largest bank located in Denmark. If treatment is to be performed at a clinic, make sure the sperm donor meets the legislative requirements established by the country where it is going to take place.
The various sections of this article are assembled in the following table of contents.
When to use donor sperm
When a couple has been trying to conceive for a long time without success, they should undergo a series of tests to determine what is causing infertility. If sperm pathologies are found in the male partner, sperm donation could be the ultimate solution to have a baby.
The main indications for using donated sperm are the following:
- Inability to achieve a pregnancy due to poor sperm quality
- Presence of a hereditary disease in the intended father
- After failed IVF using partner-donated sperm
- Absence of a male partner: lesbian couples and single mothers by choice (SMC)
When fertility tests indicate the absence of fertility problems in the woman, donor-sperm insemination would be the fertility treatment of choice. To that end, she should have tubal patency and regular menstrual cycles.
Inversely, in women suffering from infertility, donor-sperm IVF is advisable, preferably with the patient’s own eggs. Double-donor IVF is indicated only in cases where problems related to the woman’s ovarian reserve or egg quality are detected.
From a general point of view, success rates of fertility treatments where donor sperm is used are slightly higher than those reached using the partner’s own sperm. This is due to the fact that semen samples from sperm donors are of high quality, since they meet the profile of a young, healthy man.
However, bearing in mind that sperm quality does not experience a significant decline over the years, the difference between using donor sperm or partner-donated sperm is not as big as that obtained when donor eggs are used, since the woman’s ovarian reserve diminishes over time in terms of both quality and quantity.
Male infertility and donor sperm
When a man’s semen sample is analyzed and the results show that its quality is not enough to achieve pregnancy, sperm donation is strongly recommended. This is the case of single men, gay male couples, and infertile heterosexual couples who wish to have a baby.
The most common sperm pathologies affecting sperm viability are:
- Azoospermia: It is the absence of sperm in the ejaculate; it can be obstructive or non-obstructive. The causes behind it may be biological or acquired, the latter due to medical or surgical treatments such as vasectomy or cancer treatments.
- Oligozoospermia: Low sperm count in the ejaculate.
- Cryptozoospermia: Very few spermatozoa are found in the ejaculate.
- Asthenozoospermia: Sperm motility problems that make it hard for the sperm to swim towards the Fallopian tubes, that is, the location of the egg.
- Teratozoospermia: Sperm morphology problems.
Some of these sperm-related problems can be tackled through assisted reproductive technologies (ART), without needing to use donor sperm to achieve a pregnancy. Nevertheless, depending on the degree to which the man is suffering from one of these pathologies or even in case he develops a combination between them, turning to donor sperm may become necessary.
The presence of genetic abnormalities may also lead a man to give up on his own sperm and use donor sperm to prevent the transmission of a genetic disease to offspring.
Sperm donation laws
The sperm donation law varies from country to country, especially when it comes to addressing aspects such as the economic compensation given to donors, privacy regarding the donor’s profile, screening of potential sperm donors, usage by new family types, choosing a donor, etc.
Most countries place limits on how many children a sperm donor may give raise to in order to reduce the risk of inadvertent consanguinity between donor offspring. Also, it should be taken into account that some countries ban IVF treatments to single women or gay couples.
Known or anonymous sperm donation is a crucial aspect as well. While in some countries such as Spain donor anonymity is required by law, others leave open the possibility of choosing between anonymous and non-anonymous donors. The existing types of sperm donation worldwide are:
- Anonymous sperm donors: Donors register with both non-identifying information (e.g. physical characteristics) and identifying information (full name, date of birth…). This information is provided to the clinic and kept confidential. In some cases, donors agree to provide childhood photos.
- Open sperm donors: The donor wishes to be open to some kind of communication once the donor-conceived child turns 18. That communication may be an exchange of an e-mail or letter, phone calls, or even an in-person meeting. Countries like Denmark or the UK have created a donor sibling registry.
- Known or directed sperm donors: Intended parents are strongly recommended to sign a contract with the man who is about to donate his sperm. This agreement helps determine the parental rights, especially if a friend or family member is used and you want him to have a co-parenting role or relationship with the child.
- Buying from a sperm bank: Most semen samples donated to sperm banks are anonymous, although in some countries sperm banks offer the possibility to choose an open donor. Sperm banks screen their donors carefully: medical history, genetic tests, HIV, STDs, etc.
Known sperm donation is allowed in countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom. For instance, in the UK you can donate your sperm to a friend or family member, although the HFEA recommends to draw up a donor co-parenting agreement in order to set out the intentions of each party.
There is another type of donation known as sperm donation through natural insemination, in which a pregnancy is achieved through sexual intercourse, that is, as a natural pregnancy. This practice is totally unadvisable as it may lack some of the safety precautions and screenings donors should usually undergo.
Sperm donors for gay couples
Fertility treatments and sperm donation have allowed any woman wishing to be a mother become so without the need of a male partner. This is the case of lesbian couples and single women, who can now get themselves started with an artificial insemination or IVF cycle using donor sperm.
In case the patient does not suffer from any problem related to the function of the Fallopian tubes, presents a normal ovarian reserve and her menstrual cycles are normal, she will be recommended to start with artificial insemination, since it is an assisted reproductive technology of low complexity. In short, it is a simple, painless procedure.
If, on the other hand, she does not meet the requirements to undergo artificial insemination or a pregnancy is not achieved after the first attempt, IVF using donor sperm and the woman’s own eggs, or using both donor eggs and donor sperm, will be the treatments of choice. The latter type is known as double donor IVF.
In countries such as the USA or Spain, lesbian couples can undergo partner to partner egg donation, also known as reciprocal IVF. This procedure consists in carrying out an IVF cycle using the eggs of one of the members of the couple combined with donor sperm; then, the obtained embryos are transferred into the other woman’s uterus.
This way, both members of the couple get involved in the journey toward pregnancy: while one of them delivers the genetic material, the other one will carry the pregnancy to term and give birth to their child.