The Sperm Donation Is Free, but There’s a Catch

An expensive and convoluted health-care system has led some couples to look for unregulated genetic material on Facebook.

Sperm swimming toward a Facebook logo
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Madison Hess and her partner are looking for sperm donors and hoping that the third time’s a charm. Hess has already tried clinical insemination twice with sperm from a cryobank, a method that her private insurance fully covered. On both occasions, she didn’t get pregnant. “Since neither time worked, and because I want to cut costs, I’m trying an at-home method,” she told me via email. By this, Hess means that she’s using Facebook groups with names such as Sperm Donation USA that are dedicated to matching hopeful mothers with individuals willing to donate their genetic material for free or next to nothing.

These informal pages purport to cut out the fees associated with pricey fertility centers. But the pages have also provided a way for sperm recipients and donors to circumvent the medical and ethical standards established by licensed clinics, if they wish.

A typical sperm seeker starts by posting their photo, usually with their partner, as well as a brief biography, their location, and their preferred insemination methods. Whether they are gainfully employed—so that donors know they can likely afford a child—is also considered pertinent. Donors, for their part, usually post their own baby photo or one of their biological children. Like online dating, the matchmaking kicks off with a direct message from either party expressing interest, before an offline get-to-know-you.

Couples seeking donors may also post a list of preferences, such as eye color, height (most want a donor taller than 5 foot 10), and education level. In many cases, the physical preferences are meant to match a partner who is not contributing DNA. In others, couples’ desires are simply aesthetic and can cause arguments in the comment section: for instance, a single white woman asking for a Black donor, or a darker-skinned Black couple asking for a white or biracial donor.

Nicole Bergen, a researcher from the University of Ottawa, in Canada, has studied men who donate via these groups. She told me over email that no two donors are the same. “Some men were selective about who they would donate to; others would give to most anyone,” she said. “We heard a range of rendezvous stories, from meeting at a medical office after hours, to sending sperm via courier.”

These groups fill a gap in a convoluted health-care system, Bergen told me. “I think these groups arose from discontent with institutionalized fertility options, which have become increasingly expensive and are regulated to an extent that deters some people,” she said. “Given the growing mistrust of the health system and societal divisiveness that has occurred since the COVID-19 pandemic, I would guess that the demand for these groups will not dissipate soon.”

The birth rate in the United States was already declining, but the pandemic has brought its own baby bust. In part, that’s because the cost of raising babies in America is exorbitant—a 2017 report found that after birth, middle-income married parents with two children would typically spend $12,350 to $13,900 on each child annually, mostly on housing, food, and child care or education. For LGBTQ partners and couples with fertility issues, the costs of even getting pregnant are high. Although health insurance eases some of the burdens for people who have it, only 15 states require insurers to cover fertility testing and treatment, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation report found that just eight state Medicaid programs specified that they covered diagnostic testing. Only New York’s Medicaid program covers ovulation medications; the program doesn’t include artificial insemination.

As a result, families with fertility issues sometimes face a heart-wrenching decision: Give up on having a baby or patch together finances, perhaps through crowdfunding on GoFundMe, or grants and scholarships specifically designed to cover these costs.

For couples who choose to pay out of pocket for fertility treatments, the sperm vials alone could cost about $1,000. The cost can increase by thousands of dollars when factoring in doctor visits, medication to help produce an egg, testing, and supplies. This is for one attempt to conceive using basic treatments. For a more extensive procedure, such as in vitro fertilization, the expenses are higher: One cycle can cost $12,000 to $17,000.

For women who believe they have a healthy uterus and ovaries and who perhaps lack health insurance, a Facebook group may seem like a sound alternative. Magean Garay, 26, and her wife have found clinical costs disheartening. “We wanted to start our family, and the processes of insemination and adoption are so long, costly, cold, and harsh,” Garay told me. “Facebook has been a way to get what we need in a safe way to … create our family.”

Yet a free sperm donor comes with biological risks. For example, at most fertility centers, donors undergo genetic screenings for disorders such as cystic fibrosis, which a baby has a 25 percent chance of developing if both parents are carriers, Meghan Smith, a doctor at Nashville Fertility Center, told me.

Smith also explained that the odds of conception are better through clinics, because they offer monitoring, testing, and sperm analysis, tools that can help pinpoint when someone is ovulating and whether a donor or would-be father has sperm-motility issues. Clinics also help negotiate refunds or replacements for nonviable donor sperm.

In the Facebook groups, members trade advice: Donors and recipients answer questions about ovulation tests and what day to inseminate, and even recommend their favorite kit, syringe, or cup. The advice may not be medically vetted—if someone is having a difficult time conceiving, members might recommend Mucinex to increase their odds. (According to Smith, some people believe that because the medicine thins secretions, it will thin cervical mucus. “There isn’t high-quality data to suggest that this improves pregnancy rates at all,” she said. “There is little harm in taking it when trying, although I would not rely on it as a method to treat infertility.”)

But the groups seem to run on an honor system. Members might have to take one another at their word when it comes to STD testing and psychological evaluations, common steps at clinics. Yet people have posted warnings claiming that some donors have faked their STD-test results. The group administrators provide guidelines, but enforcing hard rules can be impossible. One group, USA Sperm Donation, encourages donors and recipients to make sure both parties are 18 or older, and to make sure that a third party knows they’ll be meeting up with a stranger to inseminate. Kyle Gordy, who runs the separate Sperm Donation USA, says that although the group cannot directly enforce guidelines, the community is largely self-regulated: If a donor doesn’t have reliable genetic and STD testing, for instance, they’ll have trouble matching with a recipient. “You don’t need to enforce anything, because it’s already happening on its own,” he says.

There’s another elephant in the room: What would compel someone to want to donate their sperm for free or at very little cost, when cryobanks compensate donors?

Some group members say that certain men will donate only if it’s through intercourse. “I’ve had encounters where people tell me, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do artificial insemination. I only do natural insemination, but you are really pretty and I’m sure you’ll find a donor,’” Garay said. “How in the world is that okay? They fight back, saying they are giving you a child, so the least we can do is make them ‘comfortable.’”

Some members are apparently motivated by the desire to create a legacy. In Bergen’s research, which draws from interviews with six online informal sperm donors, “all men wanted to make a long-term and lasting contribution to society, and for most, this seemed to emanate from a sense of altruism,” she told me. “There were also men who seemed attracted to the idea of having as many biological offspring as possible, to create a kind of clan amongst the various families.”

Bergen noted that the small sample of men she interviewed had one thing in common: “None of the men that we spoke to for our study were in fulfilling relationships themselves.” She believes that even though some had children from past relationships, they felt that donating sperm would help their lineage survive. Some men also hoped that their children would seek them out once they were adults, making them what Bergen calls an “estranged patriarch.”

“There are good people who truly want to be of service in the world, but I would err on the side of caution” when meeting possible donors through informal channels, says Cleopatra Kamperveen, a University of Southern California professor in social work, psychology, and gerontology who runs the Fertility & Pregnancy Institute—a program she founded to assist potential parents in preparing for childbirth. “Having a baby with someone—under any circumstances—is a serious and lifelong proposition. Even when using a sperm donor, you are connected to that person for the rest of your life through the child.”

One donor, a 29-year-old sociologist from Austin, Texas, is a new member of Sperm Donation USA. He is bisexual and in a relationship with a woman, and says that he wants to give back to the LGBTQ community, because many couples face discrimination when looking for donors. He’s currently communicating with four couples, and if all goes well, he may donate to each of them. (He declined to be identified out of concern for professional repercussions.)

But he is selective about who gets his DNA. When white women seek him out, he questions how they intend to raise a Black child in America. He explains, “‘I’m a Black man, and you may one day have a Black child.’ I ask how they’ll prepare them for being Black in this country. Many don’t know how to answer that.”

He’s also wary because he’s seen posts about recipients getting into a financial bind and returning to their donor for child support. For that reason, many donors say that they strongly prefer to work with women who are in relationships, and, if recipients are single, they prefer college-educated women who are steadily employed. The sociologist once had a near miss. “I was vetting an LGBTQ couple for over two weeks, and all of a sudden, I got a message calling off the arrangement because they’d broken up,” he said. “What would have happened if she was already pregnant?” He plans to protect himself from the possibility of future litigation by drawing up contracts.

Parental rights and obligations for sperm donors vary greatly by state. But according to Cathy Lively, an attorney focused on family law and bioethics, informal contracts made by individuals on Facebook groups seem less likely to be upheld in court than contracts offered by clinics. Individuals may use legally unenforceable language in their agreements or may not be familiar with the relevant laws in their jurisdiction.

For those considering seeking a donor via a Facebook group, Smith recommended that they instead check their insurance policy for any fertility benefits. Then, she said, at least consult with a doctor for estimated costs and treatments. “Doctors will often try to work to help get you cost-effective treatment,” she said.

In fact, almost every expert I spoke with advised caution, if not outright avoidance, of unregulated sperm-donation groups. Yet, after joining numerous groups and having countless sketchy conversations—for example, with men who had no profile photo—the 31-year-old Hess is finalizing plans with a donor she met through Sperm Donation USA for artificial insemination. “I automatically feel warm towards this person who’s been very kind throughout,” she said. “I feel like I can trust him so far.”

Meanwhile, Haliee Weidensall, 21, has finally made her match. She says that she and her partner took their time choosing someone, and the support of the Facebook groups helped her get past her nerves. “It took a month of studying the page before I found a donor. Once we connected with one, we talked for an entire month before we decided to move forward with the process,” she told me.

Weidensall determined herself when she was ovulating and when to meet her donor in person for artificial insemination. She and her partner also paid him a few hundred dollars. Weidensall said she would definitely go through the process again. “I had the best experience, and the page has been amazing and helpful,” she told me. She has advice for anyone interested in finding a donor in one of the groups: “When you connect with one, make sure you get to know all about them and their history before making your decision, because once the decision is done, it’s done.” In Weidensall’s case, the donor left it up to the couple to decide whether they’d want him to be involved in the baby’s life, and though no contracts were signed, she feels certain that she won’t have any issues.