How to make a baby: sperm donors, IVF, and mad science experiments

January 14 | Guest post by Gina Trapani

This article originally published in issue 2 of The Magazine.

Baby sleeping POV
By: Robert FreibergerCC BY 2.0

Choosing a sperm donor is a little bit like setting up an Xbox avatar. You begin by deciding on the ethnicity, hair color, and eye color of the fellow whose sperm you'd like to combine with your egg to make your baby. Then you enter that criteria into a sperm-bank search engine, which returns a list of matching anonymous males who passed rigorous genetic tests and filled out detailed questionnaires. Finally, you pore through each donor profile, considering things like his height, weight, build, SAT scores, family medical history, sexual orientation, whether or not he has moles, the shape of his nose and mouth, and in some cases, his baby photo or voice sample.

Our sperm bank has a web-based form to search their database. As a developer, when I use tools like this, I can't help but think about the coders behind it. Did the people who wrote this HTML really consider their end-users? Did they visualize the lesbians, the single women, the aspiring parents who had everything lined up except viable sperm? Did they imagine the tension, the hope, the bizarre feeling of picking out the genetic material to make your baby online, the same way you'd shop for computer parts?

In my web browser, I scroll down a page of search results, clicking the mouse wheel here and there to open potential donor profiles in background tabs.

My parents, devout Catholics, conceived me by accident. They agreed that they were finished having children after their third, my sister. They got rid of all of the baby clothes, the car seat, the toys, and the crib. Our family was big, the house was full, and they were happy — until seven years later, when the rhythm method failed them. News that Mom was pregnant with me was met with both joy and concern. Dad worried about space, tuition, and parenting stamina. They bought all of the baby stuff anew. Later, they'd tell the story of how I was a surprise, and I heard the undertones. They loved me so much, but my late-in-life arrival was stressful.

My wife and I have been discussing having a child for seven years. Unlike our heterosexual counterparts, the path to parenthood is not straightforward. There are several approaches, each fraught with a lengthy set of questions, and we're paralyzed. We debate whether or not we're ready, which one of us should carry, who our donor should be, where we would adopt from. In the meantime, our biological clocks tick and tock in tandem, louder every year. Forty looms. We either have to make a move or get a cat.

I show up at the sperm bank, credit card in hand. We've decided on a donor, and my wife is going to carry. She's older than I am, so she gets first dibs. If it doesn't work, I'll try. Redundant uterus backup! I've never purchased sperm before and I'm nervous. I try not to think about the men who have come through this place, in the back rooms stocked with sterile cups and pornography.

A vial of sperm, it turns out, costs less than an iPhone. When she sees the donor code, the nurse behind the counter lights up.

"Oh! You picked a good one," she tells me, winking. "I know him, and I really like him." Either she's a great salesperson, or our superior search skills unearthed a gem. I choose to believe the latter. Still, it's weird that this stranger knows our child's sperm donor, and we won't.

The vials of sperm come frozen in a tank, which they roll out on a small hand truck. They tell me to keep it upright during transport. In the parking lot, I strap the tank into the passenger seat of my car with the seatbelt. Driving across town to the fertility center, we get stuck in traffic — me and the sperm that I hope will make my kid. I glance over at it. "You've got to swim, baby, swim!" At times like these, I feel like I'm co-starring in a bad sitcom about lesbians having kids.

I'm ready to bring in our backup uterus, but my wife wants to keep trying.

Almost half a dozen attempts at artificial insemination fail. Every month is a horrible emotional roller coaster. After each procedure we leave the fertility center high on hope. Two weeks later, not pregnant, we're crushed. I'm ready to bring in our backup uterus, but my wife wants to keep trying. Our doctor upgrades us to in vitro fertilization, which is more expensive, more invasive, and more effective. At home, my wife shoots herself up with hormones and downs prenatal vitamins. At the hospital, they extract her eggs. I'm beside myself. We ferry back and forth from the fertility center to the sperm bank to the pharmacy. I'm in awe of what a good mother my wife already is, enduring endless exams, painful injection bruises, and a collection of daily pills, always calm and without complaint. Every night, I try not to stick her in the wrong place with the needle.

The first "test tube baby" was born in 1978. I was three years old. I can't believe that within my lifetime, a complex procedure like IVF is available to regular people (with enough savings) like my wife and me. I think about all the scientists and doctors and technologists whose lives' work might help create my child. I try to focus on my gratitude instead of worry.

At the lab, the embryologist injects the sperm directly into my wife's eggs.

"The embryos like it dark," our doctor says, as the nurse dims the lights. I'm not sure how a handful of cells that have just begun to divide could possibly have a lighting preference, but I just nod. The embryologist brings our fertilized egg into the room, which she has loaded from a Petri dish into a syringe. The doctor injects our embryo into my wife. We all hold hands and have a moment of silence, willing the baby to find a place to attach, grow, and thrive.

She looks just like my wife, which means I get to fall in love again with a new iteration of the most important person in my life.

Our baby girl was born on September 18, 2012. She looks just like my wife, which means I get to fall in love again with a new iteration of the most important person in my life.

My conception was an accident, but my daughter's was the opposite. When she grows up, she will hear how her Moms conceived her in their minds years before she was conceived in a lab. She will find out that we went to the greatest emotional, financial, and medical lengths possible to bring her into this world. She will learn of the complicated and incredible medical technology that helped make her, and how lucky we were to have access to it.

When she understands all of that, she will be proud to be a test tube baby. She will know how much we wanted her, our precious result of a mad science experiment gone wonderfully right.

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  1. Very well written! Also, I like to use "surprise" rather than "accident" like you mom said. I mean it's probably not often that a guy can trip and accidentally land in a vagina and make a baby. haha!

    6 agree
    • Haha, this is my thought whenever my mom frowned on boyfriend/girlfriends sleeping over at each other's houses. "Over 40% of children are born out of wedlock…Birth control isn't 100%." Like, seriously Mom, just because two people spend the night in the same building does not mean a baby is going to happen. There is not compulsory mechanism that kicks in so that you wake up in the middle of the night, your body outside of your control as it finds the other person like a heat-seeking missile in order to have hot, wild sex. There needs to be some actual intent there to have sex.

      2 agree
  2. Great article! My wife and I found the whole donor choice and then online sperm shopping process a little like this. The moment when you punch your bank card details in, as if you were buying box sets on Amazon, is a tad surreal. Behind it all, though, is a donor who's done a simple but pretty awesome thing in helping you start your family.

    4 agree
    • "simple but pretty awesome thing"

      Is that what we're calling it these days? 😉

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      • Haha, I know, I know. The guy wanked into a cup. But the thing is, I don't really want to mock him too much for it. I could point out how easy it is compared to IVF and nine months of pregnancy, because that's true, but it's also true that he helped us start our family.

        3 agree
  3. this post brought tears to my eyes. my wife just gave birth to a baby girl on sept 5th 2012 (who's due date was the 18th!) and i love what you said about falling in love all over again with a new iteration of your wife.
    each couple has their own story, but similar themes show up in each one – the desire, the planning, the finances, the waiting, the hope, and the sadness – all of them show up in some way. your story resonates with mine and i'm sure many other couples out there trying to conceive via alternate methods…
    thanks for writing.

    3 agree
  4. If your wife was referred to a perinatologist, someone like me saw you at every visit. Someone like me was cheering you on, someone like me gave you a heartfelt congratulations when you informed us the baby had been born, and, if you brought the baby in to say hello, someone like me got tears in her eyes while taking in the fingers and toes of a perfect and absolutely wanted child.

    Through working in this amazing office, I've learned a lot. One of the most important things that I've learned is that it doesn't matter how the baby came into your family, but rather the family you give the baby. The big difference I seen between hetero- and homosexual couples in my office is that the children born to the homosexual couples are always wanted and the women carrying those children are always on time to their appointments and compliant with any advice given by the perinatologist. From what I've seen, these couples are happy, open, and supportive of each other. Those qualities make for a happy home.

    What your daughter will get from you is the knowledge that the sky is the limit. She can love whoever it's in her heart to love. Modern medicine has made it so that she can have a child with that person, should she choose to. It doesn't matter where she came from, the only thing that matters is the person you and your wife are helping her become.

    22 agree
  5. I'm in the beginning phases of this process myself right now (as a single lesbian, a group people seem to think doesn't exist and that I can only be one or the other). I'm excited and nervous and already see so much of what you've written in my own story. Two questions for anyone who'd like to answer:
    1) Where did you get washed sperm for less than an iPhone?!
    2) How painful is an HSG? I have one on Monday (before I waste money if my tubes aren't totally tubular)

    Thank you for writing this! I was so excited to see it!

    1 agrees
    • I can't answer the first question but I can tell you that I have heard about many different responses to the HSG. Personally, and unfortunately, it was quite a painful experience for me. I wasn't told to take any painkillers beforehand (from what I hear, most women are). For some reason I wasn't expecting it to be painful, but it was. I've heard other women (most of whom took painkillers) say that it just felt like period cramping.

      • I can also comment on the HSG – the previous poster is right – it is different for different people. I took regular strength tylenol and experienced no pain, just discomfort.

    • I took 800 mg of ibuprofen beforehand and my HSG was extremely painful. Mostly it was the pain from the forceps they used to grasp my cervix, then the resident put the speculum in wrong (pinching my cervix) and the fellow had to redo it, which meant the forceps all over again. I have a pretty sensitive cervix and a retroverted uterus that makes my cervix hard to get to. I also felt a lot of pain when they inserted the dye catheter. After that it wasn't that bad, just rolling back and forth on the table to get the dye to distribute. Aside from the pain after my egg retrieval it was the most painful procedure I had during all my infertility treatments (polyp removal, IUIs, hydrosonogram, embryo transfer). I wasn't expecting mine to be painful at all and it was very jarring. Most people don't have as much pain as I did, the reports I had heard before was like it was "period cramping". Then when I talked to people about how much mine sucked I started to hear more painful stories.

    • i had an HSG about six months ago. i was really freaked out about it, and concerned it was going to be terrible. i had some cramping afterwards (less than an hour) but the actual HSG was less painful than an IUI. i took 2 extra strength tylenol beforehand. my doc gave me some vicodin for afterwards, but it was completely recreational. And I don't think IUIs are bad – I've had a whole lot of them in the last year.

      As for cheaper frozen sperm, check out Northwest Cryobank. Definitely less expensive than an iphone, with less bells and whistles.

      1 agrees
    • Maybe she means less than an iPhone *retails* for, which is $799 for the 64GB model! Mine cost $500ish per vial, but Northwest Cryobank is cheaper.

      Anyway, HSG totally varies depending on the person. I see one commenter said it was less painful than IUI. Ha! My HSG was about 20+ times more painful than my IUI. I don't think my body liked the radioactive dye; I was fine with saline hysterograms, but HSG had me moaning uncontrollably under the fluoroscope. Awful.

    • Hey, I'm back from my HSG on Monday. It was absolutely the worst pain I've ever had in my entire life and I'd taken advil beforehand. I have broken 4 bones at once and surgery to fix them and this was beyond worse. I've still had (mild at this point) cramps and it was two days ago. I would never recommend this procedure to anyone (plus, it was soooo expensive) and it made me seriously reconsider getting pregnant at all. Horrible, horrible thing. I'm a person with piercings who has literally woken up during surgery and walked to the restroom, and I howled and cried throughout this procedure. I've seen many more stories like mine than ones that went easily (now that I let myself go online, outside of the Offbeat Empire) and I wish I'd read them first. The good news is that my fallopian tubes aren't blocked. But I wasn't concerned that they were. Hence, all that for nothing (I had been on the fence as to whether I should have it). I wish I hadn't. Thanks for those of you who posted your stories. I appreciate your experiences and am glad you shared.

      • That's so interesting and I'm so sorry. I felt absolutely no pain—just weird about the whole procedure.

  6. "I'm in awe of what a good mother my wife already is, enduring endless exams, painful injection bruises, and a collection of daily pills, always calm and without complaint."

    This part made me tear up. I've already endured painful tests, lots of exams, lots of blood draws, and swallowed tons of pills and, sadly, two miscarriages. I haven't done it all entirely without complaint, but I like thinking about how these actions are already evidence of how much I want to be a good mother.

    9 agree
    • Yes yes yes, I'm in the same position after two miscarriages. I just hope that the patience I am learning will be a great lesson in preparation for parenting. My wife raised 4 of her 6 siblings, so already has the patience down pat!

  7. Concept that boggles my mind: some women I know got their sperm on sale! It wasn't a ding & dent sale or anything, the company just did rolling spotlight specials on different samples randomly.
    I guess it doesn't hurt to ask your sperm bank if they do discounts. Haha

    • if anyone else is reading this and wondering about sperm sales, if you get on the email list of many sperm banks, they often run discounts for holidays, i.e. buy 2 get 1 50% off, free shipping, free storage, whatever. if you are in the market, it definitely pays to get their spammy emails.

      • I read "spammy emails" as "spermy emails." Tehehehe.

        3 agree
  8. YES!! "When she understands all of that, she will be proud to be a test tube baby. She will know how much we wanted her, our precious result of a mad science experiment gone wonderfully right."

    As an IVF baby with an anonymous sperm donor father – I very much appreciate this post. Not all of us are depressed and plagued by the mystery and longing of knowing what we cannot know, the identity of our donor nor are we all freaked out by the process of how we came to this world. I am happy that this was an option for my parents!

    16 agree
    • Just because you're happy not to know who your donor is doesn't mean that other donor-conceived people will or should feel the same way.

      As a sperm donor in the 1980's (and later as a private donor for a friend) I'm all for gamete donation where necessary and I thought this was a wonderful article, but I don't see why anonymous donation is still allowed in the USA. Countries that have already ended donor anonymity include the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Switzerland, Austria and New Zealand. Australia and possibly Canada seem likely to follow. Why not the USA?

      1 agrees
  9. This is so beautiful. Every bigot who thinks that LGBT folks shouldn't have kids because they'll be awful parents needs to read this.

    6 agree
  10. thanks you for a beautiful & insightful post. I've often worried that I couldn't concieve (several women in my family have been unable to have children and have adopted) and was lucky enough to be blessed with a surprise with my husband before we had decided it was time… the more I learn and empathize with others' struggles to have children the more I wonder what lengths we would have gone through to conceive when we felt we were "ready," although loving our daughter as we do and knowing how much our lives were changed by her now, I would go to the moon and back if I had needed to in order to get her.

    It's difficult to even comment on this topic without feeling like I'm rubbing salt in an open wound… the fact that same sex couples simply can't be blessed with a surprise like this really hit home and made me feel guilty for ever smiling and saying "well we weren't trying to have a baby…" But knowing just how much effort and emotional, financial and physical investment goes into alternative methods of conception really leaves me in awe. And with an even greater respect for any parents whose road to parenthood wasn't as traditional as mine and my husband's was. Hang in there. Like this author said about her wife, you're already great parents, just in waiting. Best of luck to you.

    2 agree
  11. Maybe "you" began by selecting "ethnicity, hair color, and eye color" first, but not everyone buying sperm does!

    Our number 1 search criteria was a non-anonymous donor willing to be contacted at 18. No one asked me anything about eye color or hair color. I think we all have different things that are important to us, and different cryobanks have different search terms available.

    For anyone who is learning about this stuff for the first time by reading this piece, it's certainly not a monolithic process…

    3 agree
    • I think the poster was referring to the process the website puts you through? Like, maybe that's the first question is race (probably with a "no preference" option).

      At least that's how I read it.

      1 agrees
  12. My wife and I are currently trying to conceive our first child via a known donor. This is not a route everyone wants to go, of course, but we love the idea of knowing the other biological 50% of our child. We don't plan to have a super open relationship, but if our child wants to meet him before 18 (or his children want to meet their donor-kin) we have that option to negotiate.

    I can speak very highly to the disappointment of not getting that positive pregnancy test every month. We are on month #7 and it feels like each month is going to be it, and if it's not, that it's the last one we will be able to emotionally handle. But somehow, we try one more time each time, and that little bit of hope gets us by.

    I hope that our future child will benefit from the heartache and struggle that we have to put forth to bring them into being, and wish that naysayers about LGBT parents were able to feel what we feel every month when it just doesn't happen.

    3 agree
  13. Thanks for posting this. My fiance and I have been talking about the possibilities of donor sperm. Though he would love to father my child – he doesn't want to be the biodad for many reasons. I guess we really are offbeat. :) But like many of you, I don't think lessens our feelings to our future kid in anyway. That child will still be loved, cared for and wanted if was to happen naturally.

  14. You are an excellent writer. I enjoyed reading this article. I reunite families separated by parents who were not named on their kid's birth records for all kinds of reasons and increasingly that reason is a clause in a contract for custody and control of a child they conceived under contract through the relinquishment of an egg or sperm or embryo. I do it for free which means I know a TON of donor offspring most of whom grew up knowing right from the beginning that their maternal or paternal family was out there somewhere maybe not even knowing they possibly exist.

    Anyway this sentence struck me for a couple of reasons.

    "Still, it's weird that this stranger knows our child's sperm donor, and we won't."

    What he is to the mother is not what he is to their joint offspring. It would kind of be like calling a mother's husband the child's husband if her husband were also the man she jointly created offspring with. Right? I mean obviously who he is in relation to her will be different than who he is in relation to her child and technically, medically and in terms of kinship that drives full family medical histories he is the father of the mother's child whether he meets them or not and will be the grandfather of that child's children, etc. One thing I do hear donor offspring say to their mothers a lot is that he is her donor not theirs. Makes sense.

    The other thing that struck me was how you noted that it was strange for a woman not to know the identity of the man who is impregnating her and this was punctuated by the nurse smiling and winking saying what a swell fellow he was. People often discuss how dangerous it is for donor offspring to navigate dating since they have hundreds of siblings and many full first cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents and even 2nd cousins all living in the same metro region as them. There is always some risk that you may have a relative who was abandoned or given up for adoption that you would not recognize and honestly even 1 unknown relative is too many and we discourage abandonment and closed adoption with good reason. But nobody thinks about the fact that this man and woman are going to mate sight unseen. With all the medical tests and genetic testing that donors go through in order to donate it is apalling that thy don't do a simple $50 atosomal dna test to check to make sure the donor is not in the range of 3rd cousin or less to the person they'll be making the child with. The risk of inbreeding is astronomically higher when you have no idea who you are reproducing with and you are choosing traits that might mirror your own family ethnic, religious, educational background.

    All the donor offspring and donors I help for free are on FTDNA and they gave me my own membership as a gift and I was blown away to find that I shared at least one common cousin with all of them and in some cases was a distant cousin to them myself. What are the chances right? Anyway, I'm sure if people were tested and found that the donor was even a 4th cousin they might not want to mate with them on general principal. This is probably why clinics don't offer that very inexpensive testing. There are very likely lots of nephews and 2nd cousins in the donor pool and that would be problematic for sales. I think donor offspring are far more likely to be the product of inbreeding themselves because their parents never met one another themselves certainly if the donors from the same region the recipient is (sometimes they fly the sperm and then it is probably less likely). Then of donor offspring and all their unknown relatives are navigating their lives with blinders on unable to prevent themselves from unintended incest with their siblings and their cousins, aunts, undles, nieces, nephews, grandparents and even parents – anything is possible people don't always date their age group. These days cryobanks have a formula for choosing donors where they won't accept a candidate who they don't think will sell 100 pregnancies worth of kids in the next 5 years because storing and testing and marketing is expensive and they have to make back their investment on those administrative costs plus the cost of compensating him and their overhead so almost all donor offspring are looking at a sibling pool in their immediate area of over 200 kids in their age group. Yes some can be as much as 10 or 15 years younger with embryo freezing and some men donate for many years. Donating for just one year should net about a hundred offspring over 5 years or the cryo bank won't use him, they'd go broke.

    I wrote a paper on offspring limits in gamete and egg donation that is in the DSR library of information. It took a lot of time to pull the information together and it really says in plain terms what donor offspring are facing in terms of nuclear family size taking into account the economic model the ASRM is following. It's massive and quite the public health crisis. Definately something you and your wife should be aware of to walk the kid through as they grow up, understanding just how many relatives they have out there and what that can mean to their own health and reproductive choices.

    When I raise the issue about inbreeding between the donor and recipient people get shocked and say it never occurred to them but they are pretty sure that their donor was not a relative and I think that is great. They also pause and think it would not be a bad idea to request to test against the donor next time they decide to have a child. There are plenty of donors to choose from if you were related even remotely to the one you chose you'd probably like the option to avoid potential complications and just pick one you did not share a common ancestor with.

    Peace to you and your growing family.

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