Rosa Yadira Ortiz was making licuados—smoothies—for her 3-year-old twin boys when we spoke on the phone about her journey to parenthood. It has been a long one, with fertility challenges, many attempted inseminations, and four different anonymous sperm donors.
“I can give you an IUI!” Ortiz joked during our interview, referring to an intrauterine insemination, the most common method for artificial insemination, where a thin syringe is used to inject sperm directly into the uterus. Ortiz learned the technique while trying to get her partner pregnant.
Part of the reason Ortiz’s journey to becoming the mami of these two boys was so long is that she’s queer and partnered with another cisgender woman. And the couple had specific needs that made finding a sperm donor difficult. Ortiz is Mexican, and her partner is Black. They wanted to find a donor who reflected Ortiz’s ethnic background because she wouldn’t be the one getting pregnant.
Luckily, there is a relatively robust industry of sperm banks willing to cater to couples like Ortiz and her partner.
Scott Brown is the vice president of communications for one of the largest banks in the country, the California Cryobank. He told Rewire.News in a phone interview that 80 percent of its clients are lesbian couples.
So Ortiz and her partner, whose first donor came from the California Cryobank, were welcomed by a business with an entire section of their website dedicated to LGBTQ families.
But Ortiz quickly realized that the things that were important to her in a donor might be more difficult to find than she had realized. “My wife wanted to carry, and it was really important to her to carry on her genes,” Ortiz said. “I realized that I really wanted Mexican sperm. It’s stupid. What is Mexican sperm?” Despite these questions about race, ethnicity, and nationality, Ortiz was firm that she wanted a donor with two Mexican parents and ideally one who was dark-skinned. They both also wanted a donor with a master’s degree.
The sperm banks make it easy to do a quick search of their donor database, and they offer a wide variety of criteria to search from: hair color, eye color, ethnicity, hair texture, education status, and height, among many others. You can even search for donors who look like certain celebrities; selecting Benicio del Toro on the California Cryobank site brings up two options. Some banks describe donors’ skin tone based on self-reports, but for California Cryobank, you’d need to pay $145 for its donor info subscriptions to see adult photos of the potential donor.
As of this writing, there are just five donors in its database who are Mexican and have a master’s degree, but four of them list other ethnic ancestry in addition to Mexican. Of the 550 donors currently available, only one might meet Ortiz’s preference for a donor with a master’s degree whose parents were both Mexican.
This issue is not unique to Ortiz, whose children were eventually born from Mexican donor sperm, albeit from a different sperm bank. Signey Olson, a white queer nurse practitioner and midwife who specializes in fertility, said it’s a common challenge for her patients. Olson practices just outside Washington, D.C., and says 90 percent of her clients are LGBTQ and pursuing conception through a donor egg, sperm, or embryo.
“There is a shortage of sperm donors who are people of color, and that can make the process of choosing a sperm donor more challenging,” Olson told Rewire.News in a phone interview. “If a person is looking for a white donor, they have many things to choose from.” If Ortiz and her partner had been looking for a white donor with a master’s degree, the current pool would have yielded 64 candidates.
These limited numbers aren’t exclusive to Mexican donors. Black donors are also limited. Just 17 of the donors available at the California Cryobank as of this writing are listed as Black or African American. Brittney Thornburley, a queer Black woman, described these database searches in a personal essay at Autostraddle last year: “In that little drop-down menu where you choose the race of the sperm donor, click ‘Black,’ or even ‘African-American’ if that’s what you fancy, and watch your dreams of little chubby black babies wither away to dust as ‘hundreds of donors’ narrows suddenly down to, um, 11. Or sometimes four. One of the larger banks I know of has TWO up for offer.”
The big question, of course, is why are there so few donors of color in these sperm banks?
Brown of California Cryobank was very matter-of-fact about the situation. “We don’t get as many minority applicants as we’d like,” he said. “Less than 1 percent of applicants actually qualify to become donors. You need a lot of applicants at the top of the funnel to make it to the catalog.”
“You can’t just walk in off the street, donate, and get $50,” explained Michelle Ottey, director of operations at the Fairfax Cryobank, during a recent phone interview with Rewire.News. Fairfax Cryobank is headquartered in Virginia and has been in operation since the 1980s. “[Donating] is a real commitment, and you’re contributing to a family. We do lose applicants who come in and don’t take it very seriously.”
The process is very involved, including medical tests to determine donor health and to see if the sperm holds up well to being frozen. A 2016 New York Times article explained that becoming a donor at a major sperm bank is harder than getting into Harvard or Stanford universities—not because of academic requirements (although both Brown and Ottey’s banks require some college education to donate), but because of all the other factors that might eliminate you, including insufficient sperm count. “They go through three months of health screenings and physicals,” explained Rene Almeling, a Yale sociologist who wrote Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm.
Based on the stringent requirements and low donor acceptance rate, it takes 100 donors from any particular racial or ethnic group for one to make it onto the list, said Brown. Ottey has even tougher statistics; she said that just one in 200 applicants become donors at her bank.
Another factor might be geography, says Brown, who explained that would-be donors need to live close enough to one of their labs to deposit a sample once or twice a month for at least six months. The California Cryobank currently has labs in Los Angeles; Los Altos, California; Midtown Manhattan; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Fairfax Cryobank in Virginia has labs in a somewhat more diverse array of cities in California, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Both also think there may be cultural barriers to donating among some racial and ethnic groups. “There are some challenges culturally when it comes to recruiting non-Caucasian donors, whether it be religious or secular cultural reasons where people are not necessarily supportive of sperm or egg donation,” said Ottey.
It’s difficult not to wonder about the culture of the sperm banks themselves and whether they are not reaching donors of color due to their own biases, lack of diversity, or lackluster recruiting practices.
Ottey says that in Fairfax and Philadelphia at least, most of the lab staff are people of color, a shift from past iterations of their staff. She explains that shift, at least in part, to a more diverse pool of people with backgrounds in science, a requirement for working at their lab sites. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, the applicants applying for technician and lab jobs wasn’t very diverse,” she said.
Ottey also acknowledges that diversity among the staff and leadership does make a difference. “Having people of color in leadership positions is important, and I think it makes a difference. I am a white cisgender female. I am not the target demographic for recruiting [donors of color]. I’m going to take the opinion of a 26-year-old African-American technician about recruiting [instead].”
When Brown talked of his own efforts to recruit Black donors, though, it sounded a lot like how many predominantly white nonprofits describe their limited outreach efforts to communities of color: “We’ve tried to reach out to the Black student groups [at universities] and made an appeal to say, ‘Hey, we have families out there who need support’ and have gotten virtually zero response back.”
Jaime Grant, a longtime LGBTQ activist and advocate who conceived her two children using donor sperm, thinks racism is a big reason for the lack of diversity at the banks. Grant is white, but her now ex-partner M is Black, and they used M’s egg and Grant’s gay white longtime friend’s sperm to give birth to their 8-year-old daughter.
“The system itself is racist, white doctors serving white people.” Grant told Rewire.News during a phone interview. “Then I think you have the history of Tuskegee and everything else and the various ways medical systems steal from communities of color and also make you sick,” she explained. “All the different ways kids of color are stolen and colonized and redistributed around the world. That legacy and framework hangs heavy over the whole enterprise.”
Brown said: “You can never exclude [the knowledge of that history] as a possibility. I don’t know how aware most 23-year-old men are about their ethnic history, but the potential for not as much interaction with the medical community in general [is there]. Probably some of the same challenges we face in every career or walk of life.”
Grant questions whether the banks care about the lack of diversity as much as they say they do. “I’ve seen all these organizations struggle with their lack of POC leadership …. They say to themselves—’I wonder why?’ when they don’t have a doctor of color among them. There is an endless number of white people who want their white babies and will pay.”
Grant is correct in thinking that the majority of the clientele of sperm banks is white—at least at Fairfax and California Cryobanks. For its part, California Cryobank uses data from the database searches on their website, as well as their history of what sperm sells well, to determine how to choose new donors. A recent Fairfax survey, shared by Ottey, reported that more than 65 percent of the respondents identified as white.
“The best-selling donors match what you would expect from our recipient population,” said Ottey. “5’11, brown hair, medium build, light eyes, with a strong educational background and an artistic side.”
There is no national data about who is buying sperm or donating sperm, said Yale’s Almeling. “Sperm banks are private companies so they don’t have to provide data. Is it [that] sperm banks don’t have donors of color, or customers of color because they don’t have donors?” The lack of oversight or regulation means that the market can dictate what options are available—and those options mirror larger biases in our society.
The many smaller individual decisions—like a preference for an above-average height donor—then transfer to an entire industry where, for example, options for a men below 5’10’’ might be limited to nonexistent. And these banks also weed out any donors with personal or family medical histories of significant health conditions, as well as some genetic disorders. The impact of these individual decisions can replicate other systemic biases and preferences and even echo eugenics.
But this industry also represents thousands of very intimate and individual choices about how to make a family, which are inherently political but also incredibly personal. And folks like Ortiz do their best to make it work with the options available to them.
Now that her kids are here, she is clear that the donor part of the process wasn’t as important as it felt at the time. When asked what she wish she’d known then, Ortiz responded: “I would just want to remind myself that these are my kids, no matter what, no matter the sperm donor, these are still my kids. Punto. Y se acabó.”