How sperm banks are screwing you hand over fist

Clearly, sperm is a messy business.

When Canadian couple Angela Collins and Margaret Hanson decided to use a donation from a sperm bank to conceive their first child, it seemed they had found the perfect candidate. Donor 9623 was billed as a Master’s student in stellar health, studying artificial intelligence and neuroscience while having zero health defects that could effect his offspring. To top it all off, he was quite handsome in his photo. Collins and Hanson chose this adonis of men seven years ago and today have a happy, healthy son.

Except this donor, served by the Xytex Corporation of Atlanta, never went to school. In fact, he was an ex-convict with a burglary record and a history of schizophrenia, a mental illness believed to be largely passed down through genetics. The couple discovered this upsetting news after accidentally receiving internal Xytex mail, which revealed their donor’s true identity. 

While Xytex claims it was the donor who lied to them—many sperm banks merely rely on self-reporting—the company even went so far as to photoshop a mole off the donor’s face to better seek approval of possible recipients. Collins and Hanson are now seeking damages to cover the costs of regular mental health screenings for their son, and the couple alleges that Donor 9623 is the father of over 36 children.

The company even went so far as to photoshop a mole off the donor’s face to better seek approval of possible recipients. 

One would hope this is an horrendous yet rare nightmare within the tissue donation industry, a group of private companies that makes starkly important decisions about the lives of parents and children. For companies that are expected to bring life into the world, they face very little government regulation and largely handle sperm behind closed doors with little checks or balances. Disastrous “mistakes” like the one faced by Collins and Hanson litter the history of sperm banks, and yet no politician shows interest in helping to prevent them.

One of the most notorious incidents was the trial of Cecil Jacobson. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Jacobson was considered one of the foremost researchers on fertility, then a growing field. He pioneered such methods as amniocentesis, a method of checking a fetus for genetic defects by testing the amniotic fluid. He also made headlines when he claimed to have successfully gotten a male baboon pregnant by implanting a fertilized egg from a female of the species into its abdomen.

Starting in the 1980s, however, Jacobson’s career veered into disgusting territory. Along with creating falsified hormone treatments—then lying to the parents and saying the fetus that never existed had died in the womb—Jacobson was charged with replacing donor sperm with his own. Seventeen couples took DNA tests and found Jacobson was actually the father of their child. Possibly dozens more were victims of his scheme. While Jacobson maintained his innocence, he was convicted of over 50 counts of fraud. The story of his trial was later retold in the made-for-TV movie The Babymaker.

While it might be comforting to consider Jacobson a single bad apple, plenty of doctors and officials have done the exact same thing. One British doctor, working in the 1940s and 1950s, is believed to have fathered “between 300 and 600” children. Just last year, a Utah fertility clinic began offering free paternity tests to some customers after it was revealed a felon who worked at the clinic had swapped out sperm in storage for his own, fathering at least one daughter 21 years ago. 

In a more controversial case, an Ohio woman filed a suit against a sperm bank last October after they accidentally inseminated her with the wrong semen. The suit alleges that the donor she had originally picked was white, while the donor she actually received was black; she claims the town she lives in is “too racially intolerant” for her to raise her mixed-race son.

Disastrous “mistakes” like the one faced by Collins and Hanson litter the history of sperm banks.

Clearly, sperm is a messy business. The Food and Drug Administration, which is in charge of overseeing the tissue donation industry, has precisely one page of regulations demanding sperm and egg banks test for select sexually transmitted diseases, like gonorrhea, chlamydia, Hepatitis B and C, and HIV. Other than opening up their processes to semi-regular inspections, the government largely trusts sperm banks as much as most prospective parents do.

Fertility clinics, for their part, have given a generally regrettable attitude of “mistakes happen.” Xytex, the company that helped the Canadian conceive their baby boy, placed the blame on the donor and the couple themselves, saying they were “clearly informed the representations were reported by the donor and were not verified by Xytex,” a claim the couple disputes. Most clinics do not genetically test or screen their donors—despite recommendations from the American Association of Tissue Banks—past asking for three generations of medical records. 

This is certainly a lot more than most spouses know about one another’s medical record, but genetic tests for schizophrenia—the unwanted trait possibly passed to Collins and Hanson’s son—are not yet available, despite growing research in the genetics of mental health, schizophrenia in particular.

While tech around genetic testing is expensive, there are companies looking to make the process cheaper and easier for consumers. 23andMe, a popular Silicon Valley startup with investments from Google, has specialized in hereditary genetic tests showing customers their lineage from hundreds of generations; just this past February, the company took its first steps to being granted FDA approval to report on over 200 health risks that could be discovered within DNA.  

Already available in the U.K., 23andMe’s health screening can find traits like eye color and how your body reacts to caffeine as well as susceptibility to different forms of cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s. One could easily imagine a time when fertility clinics partner with a company like 23andMe to offer safe, accurate reporting on their donors to recipients.

Nothing short of an industry overhaul could help the clear and blatant disregard for the responsibility of their service entails.

And while that might help cases of mistaken identity, nothing short of an industry overhaul could help the clear and blatant disregard for the responsibility their service entails, illustrated in the many cases of outright fraud. Companies like Xytex effectively sell the ability to bring a life into this world and should be treated with the gravity such power should bring. 

Millions of children (though no one’s really sure how many) owe their existence to the hard work of fertility clinics, and millions more parents seek these companies out as a chance to experience the joy their family deserves. The companies and doctors that offer these promises need to be forced to live up to them.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

Photo via kyz/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.