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What It’s Like to Buy Sperm from One of Canada’s 55(ish) Semen Donors

It's a little like eugenics and that's a little icky.

by J.L. Bowman
17 September 2015, 5:55pm

Just some sperm floatin' on a wall. Photo via Flickr user Grace Hebert

"Should we have sex now?" I wondered to myself. My wife was saving to PDF the PayPal receipt we're keeping as backup—proof, just in case someone in our IVF chain loses the paperwork or disputes the fact the we bought this exact semen on the internet.

"3246 is our guy. It says right here," I'll say if there's a problem.

I thought vaguely that we should do something like have sex because we'd just bought one genetic half of our hypothetical future baby, and I was looking for something to sanctify or somehow ennoble the moment.

Other than this, of course.

Maybe I'll frame the receipt and put it above the crib.

It felt bizarre that a total stranger's sexual climax in a Toronto-area office (possibly years ago) could be part of the happy, smiling kid we one day hope to raise—and that the act of procuring that life-giving stuff could be so astonishingly anti-climactic for me.

To be precise, this is what we bought: two vials of unwashed semen from ReproMed Donor 3246. ("Unwashed" effectively means raw ejaculate. The semen will be taken into a lab at our clinic and stripped of all of its extra sex juice before they fertilize one of my wife's eggs with the important bit.)

If this very sterile scientific process is successful, Donor 3246 will at first give us half a zygote: chromosomes 1 through 22, plus an X or Y marker indicating sex (we don't know which and don't care). Hopefully, through the magic of mitosis, that zygote will become an embryo, and I will carry that embryo in my womb as a surrogate for my wife. And then someday, if we're lucky, we'll be raising a human—perhaps one who'll be grounded at some point for taking our car without asking.

Or maybe, our kid will be more like "Dad"—who seems like a hell of a nice guy.

We picked the genetic father of our child out of a special online catalogue of Canadian donors. For about $75 [$60 USD], clients of ReproMed, the country's only national sperm bank, get access to a breathtaking array of information about the 55 Canadian men currently listed as stud stock in this country.

(You read that correctly. There are currently only 55 Canadian semen donors listed as available in the ReproMed sperm bank for use coast-to-coast—and two of them don't have any "vial availability" at the moment.)

It's really not hard to see why there are so few home-grown guys able and willing to make with the magic these days. Foremost, no matter what the movies tell you, it ain't a "one time, one cup" system: Donating sperm in Canada is a far more complicated and even punitive process than you might think.

After an unfortunate chlamydia infection and a subsequent flurry of knee-jerk federal regulatory moves in about 2000, ReproMed became the only sperm bank doing this work in the country. That means now, because donors have to show up to their office, they more or less have to live in Toronto. The very scant few who do pass the rigorous medical and lifestyle vetting (still no gay men allowed, unbelievably) are required to give of themselves at near-weekly appointments for a year or more. Oh yeah: and since 2004, there's been no payment for sperm allowed, save a few bucks for parking or the cost of lost wages (up to a limit), so the system relies exclusively on altruism.

It hasn't been going well on the sperm collection side of things.

Now, most of the thousands of Canadians in need turn to paid foreign providers for hope.

But not us. A recent Toronto Star article made us think twice about cross-border baby daddy shopping. We figured even if the gene pool here is pretty shallow, at least we know ReproMed is doing some extensive vetting at the door. For that reason (and a perhaps a wee bit of weird, semi-competitive and certainly misplaced patriotism) we decided to dive in with a Canuck.

After the country-of-origin question was put to bed, the process of narrowing down the donors felt, as you might imagine, surreal—with just a smack of eugenics.

The surreal part: 55 perfect strangers—men and fellow Canadians—are offering to us, without the prospect of financial gain, the absolute, unfettered ability to bear and rear a descendant of their ancient family lineage. We, a same-sex couple in middle Canada, will cleave that lineage, and claim as our own someone to whom they are tethered by stardust, but will likely never meet.

The eugenics part: The way you pick feels kind of icky.

One night about three months ago, we opened up a bottle of wine, and printed off the ReproMed list.

Here's what you get to know before you even get to the individual donor profiles:

  • Race
  • Maternal/Paternal ancestry (i.e. Romanian, Korean, etc.)
  • Blood type
  • Hair type (color, texture)
  • Eye color
  • Skin tone
  • Height, weight, "bone size" (huh?)
  • Education and occupation
  • Interests (i.e. hobbies)

With slight, decisive slashes of a pen, would-be donors fell hard and fast—and not necessarily for rational reasons.

For example, there's a very good chance that under more conventional circumstances, I would happily conceive and rear a child with someone who lists one of his hobbies as "playing guitar." For my wife, that tidbit was insurmountable.

"It reminds me of Jack Johnson—the puka-shell-necklace guy who sings about pancakes," she said with another pen slash.

Perhaps slightly more troubling than my wife's contempt for the friendly, laid-back Hawaiian the rest of us seemed to love in the mid 2000s, is the idea that we would start the donor selection process with considerations of race and ancestry.

Again, under those more conventional circumstances, one of us might have met someone in a bar or at a party, and I can guarantee you that the eventual decision to procreate with that person would not have been informed by race or ancestry. Neither would someone have been disqualified from being a parenting partner for having a family history of heart disease or cystic fibrosis.

Hell, if that's how it typically worked, few of us would be here—my wife and I included.

But, in this strange place where you're paying to pick and choose the things you hope you'll get in your tiny human, donors are broken down into a list of features, traits, and medical test results. And let me tell you: Comparison-shopping dads makes you feel like a real asshole.

Right out of the gate, you're talking about looks. You can't really help it. The way the registry is built you're asked to consider racial phenotypes instantly, and that's a glaringly uncomfortable way to start building a person.

After that, you're still dealing with looks. You get to see pictures of them, sort of. Donor's features are isolated into separate pictures to protect their identities. So when you look at a guy's profile, you can see pictures of his eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, but you can't look at his complete face. All of that zooming in makes you fussy about things that might not matter at all in real life. (Who gives a shit about detached earlobes? Me, apparently.) Plus, fragmenting someone's features is a dehumanizing act, and semen shopping that way makes you feel like you're buying a show dog to put to stud.

You also realize instantly that you're absolutely trying to stack the genetic deck. ReproMed tests for a wide assortment of genetic diseases, but you get to know everything from whether he wears glasses to what killed his paternal grandparents. One particularly stellar donor made our short list, but we cut him in the end because of cancer in the family.

And then there's what I consider the donor window dressing: after you sort them out based on looks and health history, you get to go through the pedigree information—which is incredibly compelling, but mostly unreliable.

That's because things like education, aptitudes, temperament, interests, and hobbies are pretty much completely self-reported. ReproMed says it calls to confirm where the guys work, but that's it.

Is he really a hilarious, gregarious humanitarian and MIT grad with a gift for languages and a love of travel? Does he actually run marathons, love to cook and aspire to change the world? Your guess is as good as mine.

There are no sperm bank P.I.s checking out and confirming that stuff. I repeat: no matter what you read, by and large, you can only go with what's on the page in front of you, and there is no logical reason to assume it's all true.

Just the same, it's all that unreliable soft stuff that really draws your heart in—those are exactly the things that would make you fall in love and have babies with someone.

We're having a baby with someone, in a way. And I guess in a way, we fell in love with our guy, too.

After just a couple of hours, we decided to let Donor 3246 be one of the most important decisions we'll ever make. It really did come down to an overall feeling.

One of the tipping points with him was the "staff impressions" section in his profile. Those impressions are subjective, but they're the closest thing we have to a friend telling us this guy is OK.

"He is extremely outgoing," someone wrote in his assessment. "He has a humble demeanor and a very relaxed attitude. We are always very impressed with his systematic and organized approach to different endeavors."

A ringing endorsement!

The staff report also says this:

"He was encouraged by his family to participate as a semen donor."

You do wonder along the way: What kind of guy does this? Who goes to a clinic once a week for more than a year to donate semen for nothing except expenses?

Apparently, if you're 3246, you're doing it because you love your own wife and kids so much that you want other people to experience that joy, too.

"[It's] the best part of my life and my favorite thing in the world is the running hugs I get when I come home from work," he wrote in his essay.

Here's what else we think we know about our guy.

He's married (or was) and is raising two sons and a daughter. Thanks to his generous gift, there are also at least two other children in this country who won't call him dad but are certainly his children. There are likely many more.

He likes dogs, plays hockey and used to sing in a jazz band. He considers himself to be outgoing, creative and funny. He lists no serious hereditary diseases in his family. One of his life goals is "to be happy."

He also says he would meet our child, if they're ever interested.

We did get to see other pictures of him—some as a baby. He was beautiful. There is one blurry whole-body shot of him as an adult, clothed. He's standing up nice and straight with his shoulders back. Also, his nose looks like my wife's perfect little nose, his smile is kind and warm like hers, and like my own brothers, he has freckles on his arms.

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J.L. Bowman
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