For Shari Ann, good Canadian sperm was hard to find. As a single woman in her late 30s, she wanted to get pregnant and knew she didn't have much time. When she began to hunt for the perfect donor, however, she was frustrated by the selection. In her hometown of Quebec City, she found only a few Jewish candidates a must for Shari Ann (who asked to go by her first name to protect her family's privacy) and none of them were suitable. So she called a clinic in Toronto that contacted a sperm bank in Virginia, and there she found her genetic Prince Charming: tall, athletic, smart, handsome and Jewish. She bought five vials of his sperm; her twin boys are now 7 years old.
Prince Charming's real name is Ben Seisler, though Shari Ann might have never known that, since U.S. donors can choose to be anonymous. But one day in 2005, Seisler grew curious about the results of his biological generosity. He plugged his donor number into the Donor Sibling Registry and was put in touch with not only Shari Ann's family but also at least 20 others. Overall, he counts more than 70 offspring in the U.S. and abroad. Given the number of donations he made over the course of three years when he was in his 20s, there could be as many as 140.
Now 34 and married, Seisler broke the news of the scope of his procreation to his then fiancée Lauren on a 2011 Style channel documentary about sperm donors. Lauren no surprise was livid. And Ben no surprise struggled to explain his motivations: "I guess I was dumb."
Seisler might have picked a better way to fess up to his future wife, but in any case, a lot of American men will sooner or later be making similar disclosures of their own. Sperm is a growth sector in the American economy. From just a handful of vials 10 years ago, American sperm exports have grown into a multi-million-dollar business. The largest sperm bank in the world, California Cryobank, recorded $23 million in sales last year, and the U.S. industry overall does an estimated $100 million in business annually. As of late 2005, ABC News reported that the top four U.S. sperm banks controlled 65% of the global market. The U.S. currently exports sperm to at least 60 countries.
America's ejaculatory exceptionalism is not a result of American men's superior virility. Rather, quality control and wide product selection are the keys. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires testing for most sexually transmitted diseases. Sperm banks study a donor's family medical history going back three generations. Also, America has a very diverse population. So if you're a couple in a country like Japan, where third-party insemination is generally frowned upon, finding a match in the U.S. is easy.
What's more, the U.S. still almost always makes anonymity an option and that's driving overseas customers into American arms. In 2004, after the U.K. passed a law forbidding anonymity, the number of sperm donors plummeted far below what was needed to meet domestic demand. Similar changes in Canada's and Australia's privacy laws literally dried up local donations. Both countries now import more than 90% of their donated sperm. And for overseas shoppers who want to know the identity of the donor, there are plenty of American men like Seisler who happily come forward.
But the sperm boom gives rise to a lot of complicated legal and medical questions. Could a remote biological heir seek a paternity declaration against a donor father and later make claims against Dad's estate? When a donor settles down and finally has kids he wants to raise, will those children want to meet their scattered tribe of half siblings? Every young industry has its growing pains, but in the sperm game, those problems can be for life.
An Expanding Market
One thing that makes sperm such a profitable commodity is that the customer base is huge. The World Health Organization estimated in 2006 that there were 60 million to 80 million infertile couples worldwide. Thus far, most international sperm business has been for hetero-sexual couples with fertility challenges, but that is changing as more cultures accept lesbians and single parents two groups that compose by some estimates up to 60% of the U.S. market.
While anonymity helps the U.S. tap this market effectively, it's the quality issue that really keeps overseas buyers flocking. Dads are profiled according to height, appearance and education level. A man with a Ph.D. can make as much as $500 per ejaculation. Lower-end donors, who still need at least a college degree and a minimum height of 176 cm, can earn about $60 a pop. Depending on how dense his sperm is and the mobility of his swimmers critical to surviving the freezing process a donor can make up to $60,000 over two years, the maximum amount of time most clinics use a donor.
"Prospective parents know more about these donors than I do about my husband's family medical history, and we've been married more than 30 years," says Trina Leonard, a spokeswoman for Fairfax Cryobank, the second largest facility in the U.S.