The Sperm Bank of California
Support for recipients, donors, and families
We are proud to have The Sperm Bank of California (TSBC) as our featured nonprofit. Its mission is to support recipients, donors, and families through every step of a process that can feel intimidating. Alice Ruby, the executive director, describes starting or expanding a family through donor insemination or sperm storage as a “leap into the unknown.” As the only nonprofit sperm bank in the world, its aim is to be there for your family not just at the beginning but also when donor-conceived adults are interested in learning more about their donor and perhaps meeting other families who share their donor. Because TSBC limits no more than 10 families per donor, it can provide ongoing family services to its clients.
Ruby describes her organization as “a trusted friend by your side on your parenthood journey.” To learn more, see ESME’s interview with her below.
Q: When and why did you get involved with TSBC?
A: I joined TSBC as executive director in 2002. TSBC’s mission to provide “ethical family building services to our diverse community” and groundbreaking history helping single women and lesbians have children are a perfect fit for my personal values. As a single lesbian mom, I think it is extremely rewarding to help families like mine.
Q: What are the key services your organization provides?
A: TSBC is a licensed reproductive tissue bank. We offer two primary services, a sperm donor program and a sperm storage program, and we also conduct research to see how our families are doing. In our sperm donor program, we recruit healthy young men of all ethnicities to donate sperm to help others make the dream of family a reality. Most of the people using the sperm donor program are Solo Moms and lesbian couples. Heterosexual couples and individuals/couples who identify as trans or genderqueer also utilize the donor program.
Our second program is a sperm storage service utilized by individuals storing sperm for use by someone known to them. This program is used by men acting as so-called directed donors for someone they know, such as a friend or sister-in-law. We also offer storage for clients facing a fertility challenge, such as testicular cancer, in which the condition or treatments can temporarily or permanently impair fertility. This service is also used by trans or genderqueer individuals prior to taking hormones that stop sperm production.
Q: Most sperm banks are for-profit businesses. How is TSBC different?
A: It may be hard to imagine now, but in the early 1980s, there were no sperm banks that would serve women who were not married to men. A feminist health center in Oakland, California, was providing fertility-awareness classes to help women prevent pregnancy. However, single women and lesbian couples who were trying to conceive using friends as donors were attending the classes. TSBC started as a project of the health center to help lesbians and single women have children. The sperm bank separated from the health center a few years later and chose to remain a nonprofit out of a commitment to provide services and education to all women choosing to build a family through donor conception.
Building on the vision of our founders, and in response to our community, TSBC has become an ethical leader in the field and is a pioneer of mutual-consent openness in donor conception. Until the last decade, secrecy had been the rule in gamete donation. Professionals advised that parents never tell their children that they were donor-conceived. TSBC’s first prospective moms rejected the notion of secrecy. As lesbian and single women, they planned to tell their children how they were conceived and wanted the option for their children to obtain more information about the donor when they were older. This was the beginning of our Identity-Release Program—the oldest, most thorough research program in the world that allows donor-conceived adults to obtain their donor’s identity. Three decades later, one-third of the eligible donor-conceived adults have requested their donor’s identity.
TSBC’s commitment to mutual-consent information sharing can also be found in our Family Contact List (FCL), which allows families who share a donor (donor-linked families) to have contact with each other. This program is especially popular with single moms who are over-represented among families opting into the FCL. Feedback about the FCL is very positive, with families seeing their matches as friends, family, or something in between. Some of our recent research examines the experience of parents in this program.
Q: What kind of difficulties do your clients face?
A: Women using our services face a variety of barriers in trying to conceive. While some women have fertility challenges, for many the “fertility challenge” is simply access to sperm due to being single or having a female or trans partner. That said, many prospective parents we see are facing age-related fertility difficulties. We find that single women are more likely to start trying to conceive in their 40s, which increases the likelihood of a challenging conception process. We encourage women to start tracking their cycles before they start trying to conceive and to have a preconception counseling session with a physician or midwife to help identify any concerns early in the process.
Society has become more accepting of alternative families over the years; however, this acceptance varies from place to place. Some women still encounter medical providers or family members who do not support their choices. Unlike lesbian couples who have a partner and may have a community of lesbian friends who have also used donor conception, lack of community support can be particularly challenging for some single women during the conception process, pregnancy, and early parenthood. Luckily, there is growing online support for Solo Moms through organizations such as ESME, Choice Moms, and Single Moms by Choice.
Q: How many Solo Moms or Solo Mom families are you able to help? Are Solo Mom families different from other families you serve?
A: TSBC has helped over 600 women, or about 23% of our families, become Solo Moms. While single moms and coupled lesbian parents are often lumped together as an “alternative family” group, we actually find some key differences in our research. While both groups are very open with their children about using donor conception, the children of single parents report that being donor-conceived has a positive impact on their relationship with their mom compared with a neutral impact for kids in two-parent families. We also see single parents and their kids expressing more interest in mutual consent contact with genetic relations through our FCL and Identity-Release Program. You can read more about the experiences of all our families in the publications section of our website.
Q: Is there a memorable event or situation that demonstrates the goals of your organization?
A: The first donor-conceived adult to meet her donor through our Identity-Release Program is the child of a single mom. They met in 2003, just a few months after I started at TSBC. Watching the three of them—the donor-conceived adult, her mother, and the donor—navigate this new terrain was very sweet. It meant so much to the 18-year-old to see where her physical traits came from and to learn about interests she had in common with her donor. I will never forget the gratitude on the mother’s face as she watched her daughter’s excitement at learning more about herself by learning more about her donor.
Q: What are some of the challenges your organization faces in terms of funding and support?
A: There is no grant funding available to support women using donor sperm to conceive, so we operate on a fee-for-service basis like a small business. However, unlike a for-profit business, our nonprofit status allows us to make decisions with less focus on finances. Of course we need to cover our costs, but our policies are set by a community board of directors, not owners or shareholders. One area where this is clear is donor family limits. The initial screening of a sperm donor is costly, and, from a business perspective, the financial return is higher the more samples that can be collected for sale. However, there are ethical reasons to limit the number of families produced by a single donor, such as to limit the impact of an unforeseen medical issue. TSBC limits our donors to 10 families, by far the lowest limit nationally. There are no state or federal regulations on the number of families per donor, and many banks have limits of 25, 40, or more.
We do seek financial donations and occasionally obtain grants to fund our research program. Through this program we are able to learn how our other programs, such as our Identity-Release Program and FCL, impact our families. We are able to share this information with others in the field to support mutual consent sharing of information between donors and donor-conceived adults and among donor-linked families. Additionally, since most of our families are parented by lesbian couples and Solo Moms, we have an opportunity to contribute to the growing body of literature that shows that the quality of parenting and relationships within families is more important than family type in predicting psychosocial outcomes for children.
Q: How have you been impacted by this work? Has it changed you in any way?
A: What we do changes people’s lives on a very fundamental level. Becoming a parent myself has only increased my care for the work we do. TSBC encourages both prospective parents and program donors to put themselves in the shoes of a donor-conceived adult and then to consider the impact of decisions they make today on this person in the future. We follow the same advice as an organization, taking a long-term perspective, in all of our policies. I find that I carry this approach into my own parenting when I consider the long-term implications of decisions that impact my family.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.