Now that we knew the direction we were headed, it was time for the fun part: sperm shopping! To be honest, we weren’t really sure what to expect from the whole experience. Was it just like a big Sears catalog or something?
Actually, yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what it’s like.
There were three sperm banks that were recommended to us by our fertility doctor: Repromed, Fairfax and Outreach Health Services. Our doctor had said that all the sperm banks have fairly comparable prices (higher prices were for extended genetic testing and “open” donors who were willing to be contacted in the future) and the quality and testing of the sperm is all federally regulated. So, we just started browsing through the different catalogs to see what exactly this process was about. Everyone I talk to about this always wants to know: what do you get to know about the donors? Are there pictures?!
You get to know pretty much everything you could know about a person, without actually meeting them. And yes, we get to see some pictures too!
The Repromed sperm bank, for example, shows the race, maternal and paternal ethnic ancestry, blood type, hair colour, eye colour, skin tone, height, weight, bone size, education, occupation, interests, CMV status, if the donor is open to future contact (or not) and donor portfolio (which includes more details on family history, personality and some pictures of the donor’s eyes/ears/hair/lips/body type and a blurred out photo of the donor, to protect privacy). And then, if that’s not enough, there is the option to upgrade (for an extra fee, of course) to see extended donor profiles that include a temperament report, donor essay explaining why they wanted to donate, audio recording of an interview, donor likeness photographs and staff impressions. The other sperm banks had a similar set-up with the bulk of the donor information available on their website (sometimes you needed to create a login to view the profiles) and then additional information available at an extra cost. The American sperm banks even let us see pictures of the donor from childhood into adulthood! It was just like Facebook!
We began this whole process knowing very generally what we were looking for in a donor: some post-secondary education (both my wife and I have a couple of degrees and we value education very highly), overall good health, good family history, creative and somewhat talented in the arts (both of us love music!), intelligent and active. So, basically the perfect man. Should be easy enough to find, right?
I sometimes get overwhelmed picking a movie on Netflix (that’s now my wife’s job, thank goodness), so to preserve my sanity we started with some criteria that were easy to narrow down. After coming up with a “short list” of donors, we could then move on to the other aspects of the donor. As we quickly discovered, it didn’t take much time to get bogged down in the various personality traits and specifics of each donor. To us, the easiest criteria to narrow down was the Rh factor and CMV status (more on this below!), since they were a simple “positive” or “negative”. Making a baby never sounded so romantic, right? Rh and CMV aren’t often considered when a straight couple decides to start trying to have a baby. In fact, I know lots of people that don’t even know their own blood type, let alone the blood type of their partner that they are trying to get pregnant with! At around $800 (or more) a pop, we figured we would go for perfection and pick our dream donor.
Rh factor (short for “Rhesus factor”) is a protein present on the surface of red blood cells. This protein can be present or absent in people, which is where the “positive” and “negative” comes from when talking about blood type. I have O negative blood, which means I have O type blood and no Rh factor present on my red blood cells. According to Canadian Blood Services, only about 15% of Canadians are Rh negative (with similar statistics around the world). This means that our choices for an Rh negative donor will be quite significantly limited.
So, what’s the big deal? Why does that matter when picking a sperm donor?
Well, that’s where it gets a bit complicated. Obviously, an Rh positive and Rh negative couple can still have a baby (otherwise our population would be a whole lot smaller!), but the complications come when the baby is Rh positive and the mother is Rh negative. This is called an Rh incompatibility. If the mother is exposed to the fetal blood (normally the placenta prevents mixing of maternal and fetal blood) through trauma, amniocentesis or bleeding during pregnancy, then the mother will create Rh antibodies. These antibodies are designed to damage Rh proteins and can cause problems in future pregnancies, if future babies are also Rh positive. The maternal antibodies can damage the baby’s red blood cells and result in severe anemia (very low hemoglobin). Confused yet? If you’re nerdy like me, this is a nice FAQ page from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists about Rh incompatibility. There is treatment in the form of an injection that mothers can receive to prevent formation of these Rh antibodies that is given in the seventh month of pregnancy and after delivery. Our fertility doctor told us that it’s not the end of the world if our dream donor happens to be Rh positive, but it would just mean having those injections and slightly higher risk than finding an Rh negative donor.
I promise we’ll stop with the biology lesson soon, but one more thing! CMV status. Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a fairly common virus that does not present with symptoms in people with healthy immune systems. It can be problematic in people with weakened immune systems, as well as babies who are infected before they are born (this is called congenital CMV). Congenital CMV can cause premature birth, lung/liver/spleen problems, small size at birth, among other symptoms. There is a very, very low chance of transmitting CMV through a sperm sample, but the risk is not zero. Therefore, it is worth considering when selecting a donor.
Now that we had our short list of Rh negative and CMV negative donors, we narrowed down based on our other criteria. We were left with about 5 donors. All had good education, good family history and positive personality traits like confidence and creativity. On paper, they were all perfect men with glowing DNA. So, where do we go from here?
After some discussion, we decided that we wanted to find a donor that was very similar to my wife. It was important to both of us that she feel connected with the baby, so finding a donor that shared some of her key personality traits and interests seemed like a good place to start. My wife is delightfully dorky (in a Battlestar Galactica kind of way) and she is very talented with all things math related. Her intelligence makes me swoon and her nerdy comments make me roll my eyes on a regular basis. Picking a donor that was similar to her, would be as close as we could get to have a baby that shared both of our DNA.
With this in mind, we narrowed our short list down to our dream donor. He had a bachelor’s degree and works with computers (nerd factor: check!), blonde hair and blue eyes (just like my wife!), he enjoys theatre and acting (artsy factor: check!) and was open to the child contacting him in the future. On that note, we had some debate around whether we wanted an open donor or not. I felt very strongly that we should give our child the oppourtunity to reach out and contact him in the future. We can’t predict what will be important to our child, and I wouldn’t want to regret having closed that door forever.
At the end of the weekend (we spent two days making our decision) we came to the realization that as much as we try and control the variables, the nature of creating a child is that DNA is all random anyway! We can’t predict if our kid is going to end up with my brown eyes or our donor’s blue eyes. But any way our child turns out, he or she will be so, so loved. And that is what’s really important.