The Sperm & Embryo Bank of New York is lodged between a rare spirits vendor and a Chinese takeout place on 37th street in midtown Manhattan. Up some stairs to the second floor and past a lobby playing muted radio jazz is a spotless room with thick sun-blocking curtains and a vinyl-covered stool opposite a squat television. The dim room features a poster with the phrase the right stuff stamped between the thighs of a tousle-haired model. It’s a reminder, purposeful or not, that the facility is looking for the right stuff too: Sperm.
In the old days, “libido inducing” magazines and VHS tapes would go missing and men would spend “far too long” donating, SEBNY CEO Albert Anouna tells Inverse. He would sometimes have to flash the lights to hurry dawdlers. Today, however, most men are done in about fifteen minutes and the centerfolds go unused; porn is easily accessible quickly and on-the-go on smartphones.
Eloquent and exceedingly polite, Anouna has 30 years of experience and is the sperm donation expert. He is certified as a High Complexity Laboratory Director, which means he’s approved by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to run a lab that tests and preserves sperm. And rightfully so: Anouna has shaped the pop culture conversation around sperm donation — the 1995 sperm donation-Stanley Tucci romance A Modern Affair was shot in his New Jersey lab. Anouna also operates a sperm and embryo bank in New Jersey alongside BioGenetics, a corporation that freezes, stores, and distributes sperm.
The number one question he is asked by potential donors, though, is a practical one: “When will I get paid?” often immediately followed by “How much?” The answer is much more complicated than most donors realize. Long before the dim donation room, donors have to apply online, and asked intensely personal questions: How many sexual partners have they had? Where do they currently work? Have they gone to college for at least two years? If a man survives this first round, they are asked to come in and fill out yet another health history form along with an interview. If this goes well, the potential sperm donor is set to take a couple tests.
Each donor next undergoes a psychological evaluation by a licensed board certified psychologist and an IQ and nonverbal test called the Raven’s Matrices. They are then screened for the conditions below — a process that they can expect will continue if they are actually chosen to be a donor. This battery of testing, Anouna explains, is for the good of both the recipient and for the donor.
The donor does all of this — for those keeping count, we’re on step 3 — for free. If they seem like they’re good candidates, potential donors are asked then asked to provide three to five samples and if those samples are effectively good samples, then they are asked to participate.
This part of the process is ubiquitous for sperm banks across the United States. Donated sperm is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as “human cells, tissues, and cellular and tissue-based products,” so precise standards for donor screening have to be met when it comes to “medical history and relevant social behavior.” Having a college education, however, is not FDA-required but a condition found at many sperm banks. At Anouna’s banks, those donating must have at least two years of college under their belt because it’s understood that’s what recipients want from their donors. That’s a widespread sentiment: A 2014 study in the Journal of Women’s Health found that intelligence is the most requested attribute from sperm donors after good health. And while by no means are non-college educated people unintelligent, it works as a clue to hopeful women looking to pass on “good” genes. Studies show that genetic factors make up an estimated 50 percent of the difference in intelligence among people.
Those who are asked to participate are the rare few — Anouna suspects 99 percent of the men who visit his facility fail their initial testing. The ones who do, college educated and required to be somewhere between the ages of 21 and 39, then have to choose between three donor programs.
Each program comes with a varying level of responsibility from and access to the donor — as well as a different amount of cash. At Anouna’s facilities, donors can either be a part of the Anonymous, the Access, or the Total Access I.D. Donor program.
An Anonymous donor is paid $100 for each donation and the information that the recipient and their subsequent children receive is limited to the donor’s personal and family history, a lifestyle assessment, medical laboratory results, and a baby picture (if the donor wants to provide that).
The Access program is a little different — the baby photo is required and if future children want information on the donor, once they’re 18, and the donor wants to provide that information, they can have that. The people in this group get $175 for each donation.
The T.A.I.D. program is the most inclusive and comes with the highest amount of pay at $500 per donation. The donor has to agree to meet the family receiving their sperm from the onset of the process, and eventually the future children. But there is a catch when it comes to pay — they don’t get paid unless their sperm is selected. No donor, regardless of their grouping, is considered the legal father of any child and isn’t liable for anything related to child support, inheritance, or parental rights.
These payments — if the donor doesn’t drop out — can turn into a lot of cash because all donors are required to come in once a week for a period of six months. Each donation means another payment.
“You want to build up the inventory, you don’t know how far it’s going to go,” Anouna explains. “There’s is no surefire way, just because someone purchases a vial or a unit, that they’ll conceive. You should have enough on hand for the sample couple to have the choice to have additional children.”
Donors also won’t see any payment until the end of their six months of service. Then, unless they’ve signed up for the T.A.I.D. program, they’re relieved of their responsibilities — which are all laid out in a required contract.
“Everything is with a contract that goes both ways,” says Anouna. “We can reject for any reason, they can leave at any time — but if they do leave before their committed six months, they have to pay us for all the testing that we did.”
Anouna doesn’t allow donors to do the process again, or donors who have given to other sperm banks, and the distribution of each donor’s sperm is limited to ten people nationwide. Here is where he might differ from other banks — while he said it’s a much-discussed topic in his professional community, there is no legal regulation regarding this factor. While the rigorous pretesting is a requirement of the FDA, there is no law requiring sperm banks to limit the risk of high consanguinity (people who share a bloodline).
This lack of regulation, despite the laws that mandate that donors be tested for infectious diseases, is why a growing number of people are demanding ubiquitous standards on record-keeping, background checks, and storage and distribution of sperm. Someone who has issues with the system and is looking to give and receive a sperm donation outside of a FDA-approved sperm bank doesn’t have many choices — they can either work with an IVF clinic, which in turn will likely turn to a sperm bank for assistance, or they can try to contact a sperm donor looking to donate for free online. The latter option, which advocates of it argue is more transparent and less expensive, is also illegal.
Whether or not it would help families if the United States, like other countries, forbid anonymous donors is uncertain. A 2016 study in the Journal of Law and Biosciences found that this sort of ruling would cause donation participation to drop by 29 percent.
Anouna’s statistic that 99 percent of applicants don’t make the final, elusive sperm donation program made me wonder: what makes “good” sperm?
“That’s the million dollar question that people are asking: How do you select a good sperm?” Anouna says. Good sperm, he says, is judged by its motility and morphology — in other words, how it moves and how it’s shaped. If a sperm has a normal head, a normal tail, and moves along in a straight line, then it’s probably “good” sperm. People often ask him to help them pick the best sperm — should it be Donor 113, Jewish with black wavy hair, or Donor 575, a man of Brazilian origin who enjoys skydiving? Anouna can’t answer that, but he can guarantee one thing: He never would pass bad sperm to someone hoping to start a family.