Finding the right sperm donor

Updated: 2016-01-01 08:45

(China Daily)

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Storage centers use innovative methods to bring in the numbers

Financial incentives are helping ease the stigma and apprehension among young sperm donors in China.

Nearly three decades after China opened its first sperm bank, such fertility institutions are helping deal with the worsening shortage of healthy sperm, despite repeated efforts to recruit more donors across the country.

"Guys, want a date? Beijing University Third Hospital's Human Sperm Bank is urgently seeking donors. You can get 5,000 yuan (about $772) worth of subsidies. Please forward this message and let more people know about it!"

The above message which appeared as a WeChat post attracted as many as 85,000 page views in just two weeks and was one of the most discussed topics among student peer groups.

Like most of his ilk, Liu, 22, a graduate student at Beijing Sports University, who refused to share his full name, decided to make a trip to the sperm bank with his classmate Bai.

Though some of his friends expressed apprehensions about the sperm donation plan, Liu was convinced. "You are asking me why? It is a lot of money - 5,000 yuan!"

However, when Liu called the hospital, he was told that there were already many volunteers and he was sent to another sperm bank in Beijing - the Human Sperm Bank under the National Research Institute for Family Planning, affiliated to National Health and Family Planning Committee.

"I thought there might be beautiful nurses helping me out," said Liu with a grin. "But the reality was far from fantasy."

He saved some videos on his mobile phone and walked into the roughly four-square-meter "sperm extraction" room. Though there were pictures of bikni-clad ladies on the wall, Liu decided to watch the videos on his phone and get on with the process.

Liu's friend Bai said his girlfriend did not agree to the sperm donation plan at first. She was concerned that it would harm Bai's health or affect their sex life. "I told her that it was a worthy cause as it would help couples or single women who are unable to reproduce get children."

Though Liu and Bai are happy that they have donated their sperm, they do not want to be burdened with any child-caring responsibility associated with the donation. Bai said that if his biological children somehow trace him and seek his help for medical treatment, then the most he would do is to donate blood.

"Legally speaking, I owe them no responsibility at all. Why should I ruin my real family for them?" said Bai. Liu, however, is more broad-minded and said he was not averse to donating bone marrow for treatment purposes.

Luckily for them, they will never face such a dilemma. Chinese rules forbid donors and recipients to know about each other in any case. Secondly, both Bai and Liu had failed the preliminary requirement for being a donor as their sperms could not survive in extremely cold temperatures.

In July, Jack Ma's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd organized a public campaign on its online shopping platform, Taobao for recruiting sperm donors. The campaign, named "Ju Jing Hui Shen", punning on a Chinese idiom about "collecting sperms and gathering attention", caught the attention of several young donors.

Within three days, more than 22,000 men had signed up and provided the relevant personal information required for potential matching with local sperm banks.

The campaign promised 3,000 yuan to 5,000 yuan as incentives for qualified donors.

Like Alibaba, some sperm banks are even wooing donors with taglines like "donate sperm to earn enough money to buy the latest iPhone".

According to official data, most of the sperm banks in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and four other provinces are facing a severe sperm shortage due to rising demand from hospitals.

In China, sperm donation is strictly regulated. By 2012, the country had 17 sperm banks in various provinces that were approved by the National Health and Family Planning Committee. In other words, what this meant was only half of the nation's provinces had their own sperm banks.

Several local-level sperm banks have been set up, but the overall number of sperm banks still cannot cover all provinces.

Liang Xiaowei, director of the Beijing-based sperm bank under NHFPC, said the campaign did not bring as many donors as they expected. She, however, said more efforts are necessary to boost awareness about sperm donation.

Alibaba gave the Beijing sperm bank more than 5,000 contacts of potential donors in Beijing, to whom Liang and her colleagues reached out via e-mails and text messages, offering a free health check package as a bonus. However, just 20 people actually showed up, with most keen only on a free medical test, said Liang.

"Through campaigns such as these, we hope to boost donations and attract more potential donors," Liang said.

Liang's sperm bank, certified by the NHFPC in 2005, was the only one of its kind in Beijing in the last 10 years. However, the Beijing University Third Hospital set up a sperm bank earlier this year. Though Liang's sperm bank receives about 1,000 volunteers every year, sperm from just 100 or so volunteers actually end up being stored.

Part of the problem lies in the higher than average standards at the banks. Besides being medically healthy with sperm of good vitality and density, a donor's sperm has to be able to survive a liquid nitrogen temperature - at about minus 196 degrees Celsius, which is one of the most widely-used ways to store sperms for long. Liang admits that less than 20 percent of the donors end up as qualified donors. A donor can get up to 5,000 yuan as cash incentives from the Beijing sperm bank starting last year, 2,000 yuan higher than in 2005.

"We're raising the standards not because of competition." Liang said. "We are doing so because other regions are all increasing their subsidies. Beijing should not lag behind other provinces. Our donors deserve better compensation for their contribution."

The whole procedure usually takes about 10 months, including a HIV test six months after all the sperm is collected. Successful donors end up getting at least 4,000 yuan in cash, Liang said.

But a full reward is not as easy as it sounds. A donor, after surviving all the demanding tests, must be able to donate about 40 tubes of sperm - more than 20 milliliters - within two months to get the extra 1,000 yuan.

Depending on a man's physical condition, it may take six to 12 donations, 8.3 times on average. Before each donation, a donor is also urged to not have sex for five days so as to guarantee the vitality of the sperm. That roughly means eight weeks of abstinence.