The severe Black sperm donor shortage and its impact on Black women

Black men account for fewer than 2 percent of sperm donors at cryobanks. Their vials are gone in minutes.

Reese Brooks and her daughter, Zurie, eat ice cream together at UDairy Creamery in Newark, Del., on Sept. 30.
Reese Brooks and her daughter, Zurie, eat ice cream together at UDairy Creamery in Newark, Del., on Sept. 30. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Every night a little after 1 a.m., following her shift as a guard at a women’s prison, Reese Brooks would open her laptop, a second laptop, then her phone and a tablet, and begin scouring websites for sperm banks, opening dozens of tabs.

The websites offered hundreds of potential sperm donors, allowing Brooks to select for movie-star looks, height and hobbies, but when she filtered for Black or African American donors, her options swiftly dwindled.

The cryobanks gave Brooks a chance at motherhood, but they couldn’t provide what she wanted: a Black sperm donor who could give her a child who looked like her and shared her culture.

“I’d say I spent 40 hours a week looking for a donor. All together, I think I searched more than 800 hours,” Brooks said. But when it came to a Black donor, she said, the choices were slim to none.

Cryobanks reported that the number of Black women seeking their services to conceive rose sharply during the pandemic after increasing steadily over the years. Black women between the ages of 35 and 45 are far more likely to remain unmarried than women from other racial groups, according to the latest census data, with 44 percent of non-Hispanic Black women unmarried, compared with 16 percent of White women. Yet Black sperm donors represent just a fraction of available supply — fewer than 2 percent at the country’s four largest sperm banks, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.

The severe shortage is forcing Black women who need donor sperm into a painful choice: Choose a donor of another race and raise a biracial child or try to buy sperm from unregulated apps and online groups.

The reasons for the shortage are myriad: failure among cryobanks to recruit Black donors; a selection process that demands a three-generation medical history (which may be challenging for Black men who may not have access to quality health care) and excludes donors with felony convictions; mistrust of the medical profession by Black men because of a legacy of historical discrimination.

The search for donor sperm usually takes place on a cryobank website where someone can browse profiles of available donors with limited personal and genetic information. Baby pictures of donors may be available for an additional fee.

On average, sperm is sold for $950-$1,300 per vial. Donors receive $70-$150 per donation. The cryobanks sell a fixed number of vials per donor to limit the number of children fathered by any one donor.

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There are more than 20 cryobanks in the country, four of which have more than 100 donors. Among the four (California Cryobank, Fairfax Cryobank, Seattle Sperm Bank and Xytex) supply fluctuates, but as of Oct. 11, there were only 12 Black donors out of a total of 748. White and Asian donors are disproportionately represented, while Hispanic donors are also underrepresented.

Of 15 women who talked to The Post, only one was able to buy sperm and conceive a child with a Black donor.

The Black women detailed fierce competition on cryobank websites for vials from Black donors, which, they say, typically sell out within minutes.

Angela Stepancic, a D.C. educator, recalled putting vials of sperm from a Black donor into her online shopping cart only to get beaten out by a sorority sister she was on the phone with who was faster to check out. Stepancic had a mixed-race child using sperm from a Latino donor.

At California Cryobank, the waiting list for an in-demand White donor is generally three months, according to Jaime Shamonki, the chief medical officer. The wait for a Black donor there can stretch as long as 18 months.

And women in their late 30s and 40s, who are facing diminishing fertility due to age, simply can’t wait.

“You know that if you get what you need, that means another sister won’t get what she needs if she wants a Black donor, too. I’m crying, fasting, praying and believing for a donor,” author Candice Benbow, 40, said. “I know she’s doing the same, but I need to buy as much as I can, pay my storage fee, and do what I need to do.”

“You know that if you get what you need, that means another sister won’t get what she needs if she wants a Black donor, too. I’m crying, fasting, praying and believing for a donor.”

— Candice Benbow

Black women are predispositioned to other fertility hurdles. They face higher risks in conceiving and carrying a child. They are more likely to suffer uterine fibroids and other conditions that can compromise fertility and three times more likely than White women to die of a pregnancy-related cause.

And yet they are less likely to be referred to specialists than White women, said Michael Thomas, president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

“One of the biggest problems that we face as fertility doctors is not getting those patients in sooner. And we see the gynecologists sometimes dragging their feet in those referrals because they just assume that these patients are going to get pregnant on their own,” Thomas said. Some may believe, inaccurately, that Black women are hyperfertile, he explained.

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The women all said they love their kids, but they regret their lack of options.

“When you are in this position, sometimes you have to take what you can get,” said Sandra Wiley, a caseworker in Chicago who had a daughter and a set of twins using sperm from a donor of Indian origin.

By February 2021, Reese Brooks had spent months on an increasingly desperate effort to conceive a child with sperm from a Black donor when she drove 2½ hours from her apartment in Newark, Del., to Fairfax Cryobank in Northern Virginia and picked up a 10-pound cryotank containing two vials of sperm from a 5-foot-10 Peruvian man who practices MMA fighting.

After spending $8,000 on three failed insemination procedures with sperm from a cryobank, Brooks had conceived in 2019 using sperm from a close friend who is Black. But she lost her son, Kemet, after she delivered prematurely at 24 weeks.

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When Reese felt ready to try again, her friend was in a new relationship and didn’t feel comfortable being her donor.

And when she filtered for a Black donor on the Fairfax Cryobank site, she said she was left with just three options out of more than 100 donors, two of whom were positive with CMV (Cytomegalovirus), a leading infectious cause of birth defects.

“We continue to work hard to recruit more Black donors,” Morgan Barker, senior marketing manager at Fairfax Cryobank, said in an emailed statement. “There are several in the pipeline who should be available at the beginning of next year and a few more are in the screening process.”

“There’s so many good African American men out there. Maybe they just don’t know how much they’re needed to create families.”

— Reese Brooks

Brooks said she had to “take race off my wish list and start to broaden my search if I wanted to be a mother.” She and her girlfriend at the time started looking at Latino donors, arguing often about which donor to choose.

After Zurie was born in November 2021, Brooks, who was newly single, posted to her 49,000 followers on TikTok. She said she was shocked by the negative reaction to the video of her infant daughter.

“I got comments like, ‘Of course she’s mixed,’ and ‘You only wanted a light-skinned baby. You don’t like being Black,’ ” Brooks said.

She acknowledges that she and Zurie don’t look much alike.

“I am not going to raise her strictly in the African American culture because that’s not who she is,” Brooks said. “I’m learning as much as I can right now about Peruvian culture.”

She wants Zurie to have a sibling and hopes to purchase more vials from the same donor. “There’s so many good African American men out there,” Brooks said. “Maybe they just don’t know how much they’re needed to create families.”

Black sperm donors represent less than 2 percent of all sperm donors at the country’s four largest cryobanks, according to a Washington Post analysis. (Video: Amber Ferguson, Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

Until the past few years, the fertility industry was marketed primarily to White people.

“If you went to any website for any fertility clinic in the United States before 2020, you actually very rarely saw any evidence of people who just by sight looked like a person of color on their websites, and there were no babies of color,” said Cindy Duke, a reproductive endocrinologist and virologist in Las Vegas. “There wasn’t much thought given that there may actually be a Black intended single mom or a Black same-sex female couple that’s in need of a Black donor,” Duke said.

Recruiting efforts for sperm donors were also targeted at White men, according to Duke, with cryobanks relying on social media, paid online ads and word of mouth to reach potential donors.

Now, however, the primary customers for many sperm banks are single women and same-sex couples of all racial groups. At the Sperm Bank of California, the country’s only nonprofit cryobank, about 20 percent of calls come from Black women, according to program director Kenya Campbell. Experts say the expansion of fertility insurance benefits is helping more women freeze their eggs and conceive children through reproductive technology.

The sperm banks say they have tried to recruit Black donors and want to meet their customers’ needs.

“Over the years, we have spoken to African American fraternities and student organizations to try to increase our number of applicants. This has not been very successful,” California Cryobank’s Shamonki said. She added that “it’s proven to be challenging to hit the right tone and appeal to these donors rather than further alienate them.”

The Sperm Bank of California has had similar challenges. “Folks felt our ads were a little too urban. And so we really work very hard to come up with images that we feel resonated with the donors,” Campbell said.

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Seattle Sperm Bank said it tried giving out gift cards to a juice bar outside local gyms. Fairfax Cryobank said it tried pursuing a partnership with a Black male TikTok influencer but could not find the right fit. Xytex has recently opened two collection sites in Georgia that are close to HBCUs. They’ve seen an increase in Black donors over the past two years, but Mackenzie Ramsdell, senior clinic relations and digital marketing specialist at Xytex, said that “it appears that demand is still outstripping supply.”

The sperm banks face several challenges. Infertility remains a taboo topic in the Black community, Duke said. “We’re still not at a point yet where people are openly sharing that they’ve used donor gametes.”

And the cryobanks have to overcome a legacy of mistrust in the health-care system, said Dexter R. Voisin, dean of applied social sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

That mistrust is “in part because of Tuskegee and other atrocities that have happened in the medical system, but also the many atrocities that are happening outside on a daily basis,” Voisin said.

Thomas, of ASRM, said cryobanks need to connect more deeply with Black communities, pay donors more and extend their outreach to places such as barbershops and local African American newspapers.

Cryobanks must also convince Black men that donating sperm is helping other people build families — and does not mean they are evading their responsibilities as a parent.

“It has been drilled into their psyche that Black men are not good fathers, they’re absent, they don’t go to the doctor, and now you turn around and tell them that they should now trust the medical industry with their genetics, and help create children they aren’t going to see. That’s a big obstacle,” said Regina Townsend, founder of the Broken Brown Egg, an infertility nonprofit organization for Black women.

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The sperm banks said they are also bound by FDA regulations dating to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s that prohibit donations from any man who has had sex with another man within the past five years.

Campbell said that over the past three years, 10 percent of the 2,000 sperm donor applicants at the Sperm Bank of California were disqualified because of the FDA ban.

“About 20 of those were potential Black donors. And so for us, that was 20 opportunities that we could not even begin a process simply because they were part of the LGBTQ community,” Campbell said.

Maiya Skye, a barber in Landover Hills, Md., thought she had stumbled on a “miracle” when a gay client offered to act as a sperm donor — so long as he could remain a part of the child’s life.

Skye’s wife, Shauntice, had undergone 10 exhausting intrauterine insemination (IUI) attempts by then, draining their savings by spending $20,000 on fertility clinics and sperm banks.

The couple searched online for parental contracts about splitting bills, schooling, vacation times and custody, and set up a group chat. The Skyes did not get legal advice before signing a contract with Jonathan Patton of Washington, D.C., in September 2020 that committed to share parental responsibility. “We will jointly make major decisions about our child,” the contract reads.

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By the time Shauntice Skye was seven months pregnant, the relationship with the donor soured and communication stopped, the Skyes said.

Soon after their son was born in August 2021, Patton sued Shauntice Skye for sole custody and child support. The lawsuit also accused Maiya Skye of committing fraud by listing her name on the birth certificate.

Patton was granted shared custody in December 2021.

Maiya Skye said the couple were so “desperate” to have a child they overlooked the implications of the legal agreement.

Jessica T. Ornsby, who represents Patton, said in a statement: “Mr. Patton always believed he would have shared legal custody of his son, and the Court agreed with him that he should have shared legal custody.”

The legal battle continues, and the Skyes say it has cost them $35,000 in fees.

Looking back, they acknowledge their experience is a cautionary tale about the complicated legal landscape of sperm donation outside cryobanks.

“It’s kind of dangerous to enter a situation where you are a married couple and you have chosen a sperm donor, but then that sperm donor wants to remain in the dynamic,” Maiya Skye said. “If it goes wrong, if it goes left between any party, just be ready for a roller coaster.”

Legal experts say bypassing licensed sperm banks can result in other risks.

“Proper screening isn’t getting done when you go private. Intended recipients and donors need to make sure they aren’t carrying the same recessive mutations or same genetic issues that could manifest in the child,” said Richard Vaughn, an attorney specializing in fertility law.

“When people work through licensed sperm banks, there’s a system of checks and balances, and medical screening,” Vaughn said.

Still, some women are willing to take the chance.

For Leslie Fickling, a single lesbian, turning to apps offered a chance at motherhood at a fraction of the cost of cryobanks — and a higher likelihood of finding a Black sperm donor.

“I’m not a rich White woman who can just go to IVF or cryobanks and spend that money, and let alone save for a baby,” Fickling said. “I started looking at other ways I can find donors without spending thousands of dollars for sperm.”

Facebook groups eventually led Fickling to an app called Just a Baby.

The free app, which works like the dating apps Tinder and Bumble, allows users to swipe on profiles of people offering to be surrogates, egg donors and sperm donors.

“I’m not a rich White woman who can just go to IVF or cyrobanks and spend that money, and let alone save for a baby.”

— Leslie Fickling

In December 2020, Fickling, 35, matched with a 5-foot-8 Black man 50 miles from her home in Atlanta.

He told her he was in the Army, married and a father of four boys but wouldn’t share other details, including his last name. He said he wanted to help Black women who didn’t have the financial means to use a cryobank.

The donor showed her proof of a negative test for STDs, but there was no legal contract.

“I had to let my guard down and step out on faith,” Fickling said.

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A couple of months later, the two met at a restaurant, went to a hotel and used a DIY at-home insemination kit. After the first attempt didn’t work, they used the insemination kit and had sex the next month to increase the chance of pregnancy.

Fickling’s daughter, Shay Justice, was born on Halloween in 2021.

She did not pay her donor directly but did cover his gas, food and hotel, which came to about $300.

She doesn’t speak to the man much anymore, but he occasionally messages her to be a reference for other women interested in using him as a sperm donor.

Fickling said she has no regrets.

“I’m not afraid to say I used an app. I’m not afraid to say I stepped out on faith and went to a hotel and ended up getting sperm from a complete stranger,” she said.

Wahima Lino was about four days into injecting herself with hormones for an IVF cycle when her doctor told her: “Okay, it’s time to buy your sperm. We need it to be shipped here in two days.”

She had held off on buying sperm to avoid paying the storage fee. In a frenzy, the 39-year-old rushed back to her HR job, grabbed a co-worker friend and huddled in her cubicle, sifting through donor profiles.

“All the Black donors I was looking at before were gone,” Lino said.

Like many people, Lino, who is single and straight, used the pandemic to reflect on her life, and she decided to have a child on her own. She had suffered for years with painful, heavy periods caused by uterine fibroids, undergoing two procedures and a major reconstructive surgery in three years.

She spent 2021 coordinating with her insurance company, telling her family about her decision and looking for a Black sperm donor.

The daughter of a Belizean father and an African American mother, Lino wanted a shared identity with her child.

“I grew up knowing both sides of my family and both cultures,” Lino said. “I wouldn’t want my kid to start from scratch with understanding their culture.”

But by the time her doctor told her to buy sperm, all the donors she was previously interested in were sold out.

“The doctor was like, ‘Listen, I don’t want to be harsh, but this is on a time frame and, like, sperm is sperm,’ ” Lino recounted.

“All the Black donors I was looking at before were gone.”

— Wahima Lino

She bought one vial of sperm from a 5-foot-10 Indian man for $1,200 through California Cryobank.

However, it did not result in a viable embryo.

Lino said she isn’t discouraged.

“I think of my womb like a fruit tree. When you first start to bear fruit, sometimes the crop, in the beginning, is really small and then even the one that works is a little bitter. You have to continue to try for next year’s crop,” Lino said.

She’s taking supplements and is planning a murder mystery party for her 40th birthday.

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She plans to start another round of IVF in early 2023, with sperm from the Indian donor, although she is still looking for a Black donor.

“Maybe there will be more options next year,” she said.

Dan Keating contributed data analysis for this story.

Editing by Suzanne Goldenberg. Project management by KC Schaper. Design by Allison Mann. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin and Monique Woo. Video production by Amber Ferguson. Senior video production by Jayne Orenstein. Video filming by Joy Sharon Yi. Copy editing by Shannon Croom.

Additional editing, production and support by Monica Norton, Krissah Thompson, Meghan Hoyer, Jordan Melendrez, Kathleen Floyd and Kanyakrit Vongkiatkajorn.

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