Sperm donation doesn't exactly make for a high-paying job.
Donors can earn anywhere from $50 to $200 per sample, although reproductive rights organizations insist that payments should never reach "such a level that they may become the main motivation for a man to donate his sperm."
For motivated men, donation is an intensive process. Most reputable banks require donors to live exceptionally clean lifestyles and pass loads of medical tests. Their semen samples must clear strict requirements to be declared viable.
Still, many men decide to take on that burden, either to help society or to earn a little extra money. We spoke with one man who donated sperm for two years, resulting in the birth of 22 children—so far.
He asked to remain anonymous, and he told us how his experience changed his views on life (and what actually happens when you go into that little room).
[Editorial note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
URBO: It's hard to think of a way to start this that isn't a little weird, so I'll just start: How did you get started with sperm donation?
ANONYMOUS: In 2004, I was a college student, and I had just moved to the Bay Area with my girlfriend. My girlfriend at the time was—she had already been donating her eggs, actually.
She told me there was a sperm bank down the street that was in Berkeley, California, that was looking for people to donate. And I was like, "Alright, whatever, sure." I went through the process, which takes about 2 months.
[Editorial note: That bank was The Sperm Bank of California. We confirmed that our source was a donor, but couldn't confirm other confidential details, like payment amounts, that he mentioned later in the interview.]
Two months? What was that part of the process like?
They do, like, a full health history and everything. The whole time, you're continuing to donate, but you don't get paid for your donation until your health history checks out, along with your genetic profile and all that stuff.
After about two months, they approved me, and they paid you retroactively. I just continued to go there, three times a week, for about two years.
Were you worried about your identity? A lot of donors want to stay anonymous.
They had, like, very strict identify protection. There's—they would lock the doors between the donation room and the front door, because two donors could never pass each other in the hall. So they would lock you in, and you'd have to use an intercom, and be like, "Is the coast clear?"
It was great. It was probably one of the best jobs I've ever had. I mean, for a college student, it was perfect in terms of scheduling. There's a number of things that I'd consider additional benefits.
What would some of those benefits be?
Well, I really look forward to meeting these kids, if I get a chance to do so. Things like that. Overall, the whole thing has, like, been just a positive overall for me. A lot of people get weird about it, or they always want to ask questions about it—but, yeah, it was positive.
Why'd you quit—or, I guess, more accurately, why were you "retired?"
After two years, there's a law that says—I'm not completely sure that this is how the law works, actually. My understanding of it is that there can only be 10 families that have successfully inseminated with your sauce.
[Editorial note: This is the policy of the Sperm Bank of California, but it's not actually a law.]
Those 10 families—and, again, I believe this is how this works—they can come back and have more kids with your donation, but they have to spend a lot more to use a different donor. Therefore, a lot of families will use the same donor multiple times.
That was my understanding of it when I left the sperm bank in 2006. And they had actually told me very abruptly that I had actually had 15 families that had successfully inseminated.
If the cutoff is 10, how did that happen?
Some families don't report back that they've gotten pregnant.
I get the sense that regulations played a pretty heavy role in this process.
My sense for most of these laws is that they are very heavily state laws, and California was kind of forward-thinking in a lot of ways.
[Editorial note: As it turns out, the United States doesn't have any laws regulating who can donate sperm. However, most banks follow guidelines from expert organizations like the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM). Many states do have specific laws that establish parental rights—essentially to prevent a sperm donor from claiming rights over his biological children.]
You mentioned that you look forward to meeting the kids. Is that really possible?
Yeah. So, one of the things that the sperm bank said they were proud of—they said they were the first bank with an identity release program.
Basically, it's a path for the kids to meet their biological father, if they're so inclined. If both parties agree to it, then they make the contact information available. When the kids are of legal age, they're notified and given the opportunity to contact the biological father.
I'm actually very excited about the prospect of that. I think when I was a kid, I had the experience of going to Greece. My parents are Greek, and my dad has nine brothers and sisters. I met all my cousins and uncles and aunts, and that was a really cool experience. To meet people that had your genes, but not, like—well, you didn't know them that well. It was a really cool experience.
That's why I'm really excited about meeting my kids. For me, it's this really powerful, personal answer to the question of nature versus nurture. What matters more?
They'll have different upbringings, but they'll share some of their genetics. What if they have my weird ways, my mannerisms? Or what if I hear one of them laugh, and the laugh sounds like my dad's? Or what if nothing like that happens, and they hardly look like me?
It's fascinating. I'd feel privileged to get a window into that. Hopefully, I'll have a number of my kids coming back. Maybe I shouldn't say "my kids." People get offended if I call them that, sometimes...
Well, calling them biological kids—I think that's fair.
Yeah. My "progeny," I guess. I have 22, as of the last I checked with the sperm bank—12 boys and 10 girls.
They also would let donors know if their children have genetic abnormalities. Oh, and they said that they'll keep some of my sperm frozen, in case I ever need it; I can get the, uh, "stuff" from when I was young and virile. That's another perk or benefit.
I'm actually not a very big believer in having kids. I would never make the decision to have kids. I don't want to bring life into this world, at least not in this phase in my life.
That surprises me somewhat, that you'd have that view.
A lot of people have that response, actually. But understand that, when donating, I'm not really making a choice to have kids, I'm making a choice to give an option for people who are making a choice to have kids. That's a decision they're going to make, regardless whether or not they choose me as their donor.
I think the decision [not to have kids] is a heavy decision for me, personally. But again, it's not like I'm judging people for having kids.
Although, with the donation, I guess that—on a primal level, the checkbox of my biological imperative has been fulfilled, so to speak. But I didn't have to raise them, and I didn't carry that burden of making the decision. It's all on somebody else.
It works out, doesn't it? Somebody wants to have kids, but biologically, they can't. I don't want to have kids, but biologically, I can.
It sounds like a positive thing, and it's wonderful to give someone an option like that. How do people react when they find out that you did this?
I think a lot of people have different reactions to it—they come from different values, or they have different ways of seeing the issue.
Some people kind of expect that I should be ashamed about it. I'm not, of course. I've been very vocal about it. I'm actually really stoked about it. So often I'll mention it, and I don't have a problem mentioning if someone brings it up.
With that said, I don't talk about this with, like, colleagues at work. It's not something I'd put on my resume or something like that. And I would say, the overall process is not something that is a big deal. Some people get precious about their genetic material—"Oh, my kids, I want them to be mine, and be special with me."
That's totally fine, but that's not where I'm coming from.
So, the people that do this—money is certainly a consideration. It sounds to me like it wasn't your primary consideration, necessarily, but with that being said, how much did it pay at the time?
When I started, the pay was something like $75 a pop. So, basically, they'd only pay you for viable sample. That meant a few different things.
They had tests to determine whether the sample was contaminated—in other words, was there bacteria, was it clean? Like, you had to clean yourself and make sure everything was sterile.
[Editorial note: Testing—for the donors and their samples—is quite thorough. The ASRM's guidelines recommend testing donors for hepatitis, HIV, and other sexually transmitted infections, and they recommend semen samples be frozen to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. The Sperm Bank of California performs additional testing on donations, and frequent donors, like our source once was, are tested weekly for sexually transmitted diseases. Infrequent donors’ samples are frozen and quarantined for six months.]
The other component to it was the sperm count. And nobody—well, what guy knows what his sperm count is?
They don't exactly have that setting on your FitBit.
Right, exactly! I turned out to have a very high sperm count. The nurses would always joke that I shouldn't get too near them at the sperm bank. They were playful about it.
Anyway, it was $75 when I started, but by the time I finished, it was closer to $150. I don't know why they kept on raising the price. They'd say, "We want to advocate for the donors and offer you guys more, so we raised your price up to $150," or whatever.
You could go as many times as you wanted in the week, really, to produce samples. They were open from Monday through Thursday, but they would only accept viable samples that met the count. If you couldn't regenerate basically enough sperm to meet the count, you would basically not get paid.
Did that happen often? Were there times where you went in and didn't get paid?
Yeah, every so often that would happen. The pay was potentially erratic like that.
At the time, though, I was kind of in a relationship where we had kind of fallen out of love with each other, so we weren't really intimate very often. In that sense, it was a good thing for me. You can't really be intimate too often with a partner if you're donating, because…
Yeah, I can read between the lines there.
Yeah, you might not make the count the next time you go in. So I found that I could go a day and a half and I could get viable count.
I would go three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday. It was pretty straightforward in that regard, and I usually got paid. But every once in a while, you'd have a dud sample.
And this is probably a stupid question, but I'm curious, how did they tax that? Did you have taxes taken out of your donation check?
I don't remember at all. That's a good question. I think they just 1099'd me, I'm pretty sure.
[Editorial note: It is, typically, a 1099—the tax form filled out by most independent contractors.]
If a person is considering this, what do you wish you had known before you went in for the first time?
I guess the thing to think about going into it is—I don't know. I think it's a pretty great deal. It's one of the best things that I've done for income, pretty much.
Generally, there are some practical things that prevent some people from doing it. You have to live a very clean lifestyle. I was very clean at those days, and as I said, I wasn't in a very involved relationship. So for me, that was kind of like the right set of circumstances.
There is sort of a stigma about it, though, at least socially.
Yeah. Some people act like I should be embarrassed.
But what should I be embarrassed about? This was a great deal. It was a big part of my life. I've got 22 kids out there. That's like, a significant thing. I shouldn't be embarrassed about that. That's pretty cool.