Western Wash. sperm bank puts face on anonymous donors

by: Monique Ming Laven Updated:


SEATTLE - They are two sides of a modern coin.

On one side, you have a single woman or a couple who desperately want a child. Oftentimes, they tried the adoption system first, only to be rejected or left waiting for years. Meanwhile, the biological clock ticks and gets louder.

On the other side, you have a young man who needs money. Oftentimes he's a college student whose school schedule and part-time job aren't covering all his expenses. A small room with his choice of pornography awaits, with the promise of quick cash when he emerges.

The two parties never have to meet face-to-face. Their matchmaker and only point of contact is a sperm bank. Nine months later, a baby is born. A family made. A school bill paid. 

It sounds relatively simple, but we're now finding out just how complicated it is. As fertility issues come out of the shadows and into the public discourse, the practice of selling sperm is coming into the light.

Now, KIRO 7 has connected with families to get their stories and has walked through the only sperm bank in western Washington to find out how this very personal decision starts with a very professional transaction. But it is also a transaction with little regulations and plenty of potential for complications.

Seattle Sperm Bank opened near the University of Washington for one prevailing, obvious reason: business is booming. Clinic liaison Eric Kendall says they cannot keep up with demand. They established their office there knowing the campus would supply a group of young men who could list a great education on their donor "resumes."  Those resumes are on their website and look an awful lot like fodder for a dating site. Listed: eye color, height, interests, education, race. But the pictures are markedly different from match.com: They are baby pictures. Just enough to give clients a general idea of their appearance without giving away their identity.

Many sperm banks keep everything anonymous. But Seattle Sperm Bank has seen that donor-conceived children often feel a part of their history and identity is missing without knowing who their biological father is. So their donors agree that once a child conceived with their sperm becomes an adult, that child can contact them. But first, the donors can make as much as $10,000 a year and put off the implications for 18 years.

Seattle Sperm Bank says the majority of its business comes from single women and lesbian couples, who fall way down -- or completely off -- the list for those permitted to adopt children. Clients pay on average a couple thousand dollars and get guided through the process of picking their donor. They make their selection, they buy their vials of sperm, and they hope to get pregnant. 

Married couple Jennifer and Rosie, of Seattle, managed to adopt one son from Guatemala but then got stonewalled as they tried to adopt more children. They believe they were seen as less-than-ideal parents because they are lesbians. A sperm bank in California offered them a cut-and-dry business arrangement.

"Nobody could determine whether or not you were fit to parent, and so it felt like we had more control over the outcome," they told KIRO 7 as their family of four children played around them.

But the lack of controls is also a problem, according to Wendy Kramer, whose donor-conceived son, Ryan, is now 23. She points to a short list of regulation over sperm banks, which make a lot of money with very little oversight.

"So they're in there to make money, which is fine. They can make money, but they should do it in a more ethical and responsible manner," she said.

The Food and Drug Administration requires sperm banks to test sperm for communicable diseases like HIV, but not genetic ones. Seattle Sperm Bank does additional, expensive testing on their donor sperm, including screening for cystic fibrosis, sickle cell and several other diseases. But that is voluntary and not required. KIRO 7 discovered cases involving other banks where heart ailments, cerebral palsy and other conditions got passed on by donors.  

Kramer also wants regulation and tracking of donors. Right now, they can donate to as many sperm banks as they want, and banks can sell any individual donor's sperm to as many clients as they want. That is leading to some eye-popping results, which Kramer shared with us.

Back in 2000, she started the Donor Sibling Registry website for her son.

"It was just a way to find out if there was anyone else out there in a situation similar to mine," Ryan explained.

Donor-conceived children or their parents can register and enter information about the sperm bank they used and their donor's number. Then they can find other registered families who share the same donor -- in other words, their half-siblings. The website has reached critical mass. There are more than 40,000 families registered, and that's resulted in more than 11,000 connections made. It’s also uncovered some cases where one donor has fathered more than 100 children. The reality is hitting home for families with donor-conceived children: they have more siblings out there than they had considered.

"When the number became 37, it was like, OK, whew, take a breath," said Barb Perruccio, with a laugh.

She lives in Denver. Fourteen years ago, she went through a sperm bank in California. She and her then-partner chose Donor 670, and now they have three kids. They entered their information through DSR and immediately found a match: Jennifer and Rosie's kids, in Seattle.

They immediately contacted one another and set up a meeting. The results were striking.

"They walk alike," Jennifer said about the kids’ first meeting in Seattle. "Their mannerisms, how they hold their shoulders, how they look at things, it's just an uncanny similarity."

The kids have only met three times, but they say their bond was immediate and will be lifelong.

"I sort of feel like they're more than half-siblings," said Jennifer and Rosie's younger daughter, Ally.

"I think it completely redefines the whole concept of what is family, and I think it's great," said Jennifer and Rosie.

The experience has been so great, the Seattle and Denver families have reached out to as many of their donor families as they can find. This summer 17 of the 37 kids from across the country are coming to Seattle to meet. The kids say they're excited, but they also note they don't know how many half-siblings they have now -- or may have in the future. Thirteen-year-old Emmalynn Perruccio says it's a little weird "because they just, like, keep on coming."

Some refer to this as the Wild West world of the sperm bank business. It allows many parents to finally create the families they've always wanted, but with so little regulation over the banks, it can get messy. There is no way to track how many families are affected by the burgeoning baby making business.

As Seattle Sperm Bank's Eric Kendall concedes, "There is no way to even guess."

Want to talk about the news of the day? Watch free streaming video on the KIRO 7 mobile app and iPad app, and join us here on Facebook.