There are only 35 sperm donors left in all of Canada. Holy mama, we’ve got a problem.
On an early summer evening in the late 2000s, as the sun plunged below the Don Valley Parkway, five women spoke animatedly around a backyard patio set. An overstuffed ashtray sat among our overfilled wine glasses, while a growing pile of drained bottles teetered by our feet. We were approaching, or had just hit, our 30th birthdays; we all had post-secondary degrees, well-stamped passports and decent jobs that made us different degrees of crazy. Between us, we had conservatively 814 weddings to attend that year, but no diamond rings hung off any of our fingers. That may have been a recurring talking point.
Near the end of the night, after conversation turned again to marriage, one of us shrugged off the idea that a diamond ring was crucial to her family design. “It would be nice, but it won’t change whether I become a mother,” she said. “That’s more important to me than a relationship. So if a man doesn’t work out, I’m going to the sperm bank. It’s my fall-back plan.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a friend express this idea. It certainly won’t be the last. Last year, Hollywood—that barometer of the mainstream—devoted two comedies, starring Jennifers Aniston and Lopez, to precisely the same sentiment. Statistically and anecdotally, we know that women, disinclined to wait for Mr. Right (or Mr. Right Now, or Mr. Right for Procreative Purposes), are choosing single motherhood with the help of a donor cup. And for many of the five million Canadians who struggle with infertility, or the thousands of lesbian couples who want to become parents, artificial insemination doesn’t in fact represent a fall-back plan: it’s solidly part of their Plan A, an essential component to building their families.
A cursory glance at our census data or one rush-hour ride on a sardine-crammed subway is enough to suggest that we’re not exactly hard up for adult men and their sperm—there are 12 million of them, at last count. So this should be a pretty viable alternative, right?
No, not remotely. In late February, a government agency called Assisted Human Reproduction Canada released a study gauging the current landscape of sperm donation in this country. Prepared by health care professionals and academics in Hamilton, the report used population statistics, donor behaviour and medical eligibility to determine both the current demand for donor sperm and the projected supply. Estimated demand: 5,500 patients. Estimated supply: 60 men.
The reality is even more dire. Currently, in the entire country, there are only 35 active sperm donors. Over the last decade, our government has made its donation system so thoroughly unappealing that this ubiquitous fluid is almost impossible to obtain through official channels. There is a single operating sperm bank in all of Canada—ReproMed, tucked away in Toronto’s west end—and the samples there are kept under the kind of security usually reserved for visiting heads of state. Those samples are well-protected, but they haven’t travelled far: ReproMed requires its sperm to be collected on site, during one of the near-weekly visits donors make over the course of a year. Which means that single women and couples seeking donor sperm must place all of their hopes in the hands (and other parts) of a paltry three-dozen dudes from Toronto. Not much of a fall-back plan, is it?
Canada’s only sperm bank is awash in sea-foam green. Every other wall has a thick coat of the colour, which pops up in the framed pictures of benign flora and trickles down to the minty scrubs of the half-dozen nurses buzzing around the front desk. The cheerful tinkling of elevator jazz—sea-foam green’s musical equivalent—can be heard throughout ReproMed’s sprawling network of labs, ultrasound rooms and ORs. At each turn, the stainless steel high-techery is tempered by soft lighting and bamboo plants. It’s not an uninviting place; it looks mostly like a hospital spa.
Around the corner from the main entrance, where patients seeking fertility services such as cycle monitoring and insemination wait, is another, smaller room, with just one minty-scrubbed nurse. This is where the sperm donors go. They fill out paperwork and are put through their exams; then they’re waved down a hall to one of three doors that hold, in the gently euphemistic way of these sorts of places, the “collection rooms.”
A ReproMed collection room is a sparse affair: leather chair, flat-screen TV, neat stack of Penthouse issues, sink. There’s also an automatic hand sanitizer on the wall by the door and, next to that, a red button. When the donor’s all done, he presses the button, which triggers a light in the andrology lab, which sends a technician to retrieve the sample, which is the donor’s cue to leave. The sample is then examined and, if it’s good, clean, motile sperm, taken off to cryostorage, where it is preserved in a tank of liquid nitrogen.
The cryostorage room is basically a large storage closet, presided over by the affable technician Maria, who wears a tiny golden sperm pinned to her shirt. (The sperm pin had drooped slightly, but a quick flick from Maria’s fingers sends him swimming back upstream.) She turns to one of the sizable tanks and punches her code into the mounted alarm, which beeps jarringly over the piped-in Muzak. What happens next is straight out of Jurassic Park: the soft whoosh of released pressure, the icy bottom of the removed lid, the plume of liquid nitrogen vapour. And there, beneath its greyish wisps, looking like the skyline of a major city seen from above, are the square-topped green and yellow vials: Canadian sperm.