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If you already have a rough idea of what a sperm bank is, you might wonder what happens behind the scenes.
How do sperm banks work? Donors use sperm banks (also called cryobanks), as do people planning for their future. They can also be a resource for single women or lesbian couples who want a child through artificial insemination.
Frozen sperm also provides a sort of insurance policy if you work a high-risk job or are going through medical treatment like chemotherapy, which can cause temporary or lasting male infertility (Vakalopoulos, 2015).
Here’s what you need to know about how sperm banks work––and how to make a withdrawal.
How is sperm collected for freezing?
Sperm is collected by ejaculating into a sterile container. At a sperm bank, you’re given a private room to collect your semen sample, and some sperm banks allow your partner in to assist.
Other companies allow you to collect a sample at home and mail it in. As part of the collection process, you’ll need to be screened by the sperm bank before donating or storing semen. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all sperm banks to test for infectious diseases like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV. These facilities also need a detailed medical and family history going back up to two generations (FDA, 2019).
Some facilities have requirements not mandated by the FDA, such as donors needing a degree from a major university. Others have age requirements due to the risk of genetic conditions being passed on from older donors (Yatsenko, 2018). If a facility has requirements such as these, they would only apply to people donating to others––not if you’re storing sperm for your own future use.
If you select to be a known donor (more on that later), you’ll need to complete a psychological evaluation. This assesses the potential outcomes of donation, including whether you would try to have eventual contact with your biological children.
How is sperm frozen?
The process of freezing sperm is called cryopreservation. Exact freezing techniques vary, but research finds successful freezing and thawing of sperm happens when ice crystals in the sample are minimized.
Rapid freezing (also called vitrification) is increasingly used to safeguard sperm samples as it reduces these ice crystals. Sperm banks use different cryoprotectants (compounds that minimize ice crystals but don’t affect the sperm) and liquid nitrogen tanks to store samples at the proper temperature (Tvrdá, 2021; WHO, 2021).
How long can sperm be stored?
Theoretically, there’s no limit to how long a sperm bank can store semen––as long as it’s stored correctly. There are guidelines for sperm donation from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, though they don’t have a recommendation for how long sperm can be stored (ASRM, 2008).
How much sperm does it take to get pregnant?
We do know that freezing and thawing techniques may damage sperm and or DNA in cells. One study found that various types of cryopreservation all impacted sperm motility (movement) and morphology (sperm shape) (Lusignan, 2018; Raad, 2018).
There is a chance that long-term sperm storage results in lower motility, which may make it harder to conceive. One small study found samples stored for 1–5 years had higher motility than ones stored for 9–13 years (Edelstein, 2008).
However, a more recent study that examined more than 2,500 samples found no adverse effects on sperm motility, whether frozen for six months or 14 years. As long as you’re aware there’s potential for sperm quality to decrease with the current methods for freezing and thawing, there’s no limit to how long you can store semen (Yogev, 2010; Tvrdá, 2021).
How to find a sperm donor
First, you’ll need to decide whether you want to know the identity of your donor. Anonymous sperm donors don’t disclose their identifying information.
Known donors (also called directed donors) are people whose identity you know. How you weigh the importance of these details is up to you. You may value different traits in a sperm donor than in a long-term partner, and that’s OK (Gith, 2019).
You can also ask a friend or family member to be a donor if that’s an option. You may need to go to a specific sperm bank if you want a directed donor. Either way, the facility you choose will match you with a donor based on what you value most.
How to withdraw from a sperm bank
To withdraw a sample, you’ll need to submit a notice to the sperm bank storing it. They will then send the sample over to the medical facility performing any assisted reproductive procedures.
It’s important to know that only the person who submitted the sperm sample can withdraw it. If a heterosexual couple wants the woman to be able to withdraw it in the case of her male partner’s death, for example, consent forms allowing this need to be completed with the sperm bank.
Freezing sperm: cost, effectiveness, where to store it
What is the cost of sperm donation?
Donating sperm for use by others doesn’t cost anything but your time. Some sperm banks will even pay you for samples. You may be paid a portion upfront and the remainder when your sperm is released.
Not everyone is eligible to be a long-term donor, however. If your sperm doesn’t survive an initial freeze and thaw test, you won’t be able to donate. And if you are donating for your own personal storage and possible future use, you will likely have to pay a fee for storage and withdrawal.
If you plan to use donor sperm, costs are generally between $900–1000 per vial. This cost is separate from any assisted reproductive procedure you have after, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and or intrauterine insemination (IUI).
- Edelstein, A., Yavetz, H., Kleiman, S. E., et al. (2008). Effect of long-term storage on deoxyribonucleic acid damage and motility of sperm bank donor specimens. Fertility and Sterility, 90(4), 1327–1330. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2007.07.1343. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17923127/
- Gith, E. & Bokek-Cohen, Y. (2019). Choosing genes without jeans: Do evolutionary psychological mechanisms have an impact on thinking distortions in sperm donor preferences among heterosexual sperm recipients? Human Fertility, 25(1), 63–71. doi:10.1080/14647273.2019.1700560. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14647273.2019.1700560
- Lusignan, M. F., Li, X., Herrero, B., et al. (2018). Effects of different cryopreservation methods on DNA integrity and sperm chromatin quality in men. Andrology, 6(6), 829–835. doi:10.1111/andr.12529. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30175448/
- Practice Committee of American Society for Reproductive Medicine, & Practice Committee of Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (ASRM). (2008). 2008 Guidelines for gamete and embryo donation: a Practice Committee report. Fertility and Sterility, 90(5), S30–S44. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.08.090. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19007645/
- Raad, G., Lteif, L., Lahoud, R., et al. (2018). Cryopreservation media differentially affect sperm motility, morphology and DNA integrity. Andrology, 6(6), 836–845. doi:10.1111/andr.12531. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30105872/
- Taylor, M. J., Weegman, B. P., Baicu, S. C., et al. (2019). New approaches to cryopreservation of cells, tissues, and organs. Transfusion Medicine and Hemotherapy, 46(3), 197–215. doi:10.1159/000499453. Retrieved from https://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/499453
- Tvrdá, E., Gosálvez, J., Arroyo, F., et al. (2021). Dynamic assessment of human sperm DNA damage III: The effect of sperm freezing techniques. Cell and Tissue Banking, 22(3), 379–387. doi:10.1007/s10561-020-09883-8. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10561-020-09883-8
- Vakalopoulos, I., Dimou, P., Anagnostou, I., et al. (2015). Impact of cancer and cancer treatment on male fertility. Hormones (Athens, Greece), 14(4), 579–589. doi:10.14310/horm.2002.1620. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26732148/
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (2019). What you should know – reproductive tissue donation. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/safety-availability-biologics/what-you-should-know-reproductive-tissue-donation
- World Health Organization (WHO). (2021). WHO laboratory manual for the examination and processing of human semen. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240030787
- Yatsenko, A. N. & Turek, P. J. (2018). Reproductive genetics and the aging male. Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, 35(6), 933–941. doi:10.1007/s10815-018-1148-y. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29524155/
- Yogev, L., Kleiman, S. E., Shabtai, E., et al. (2010). Long-term cryostorage of sperm in a human sperm bank does not damage progressive motility concentration. Human Reproduction, 25(5), 1097–1103. doi:10.1093/humrep/deq041. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/humrep/article/25/5/1097/640323?login=true
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.