Between clinic costs, sperm bank, and Fed-Ex, I would have to pay more than $8,000 to use a known sperm donor of my choosing. So we went the old-fashioned route and had sex instead.

By Sophie Strosberg
May 25, 2021
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Money—having it, that is—can pave the way for just about anything. Your small business aspirations. Your dream travel. Your garden gnome collection. It can even help you form a family. But if, like me and millions of other Americans, money is tight, it's easy to feel totally boxed out of accomplishing your goals—particularly the parenthood part.

This is how I was feeling as I considered my options for conceiving as a single parent by choice. It was May, and the snow had finally retreated from its grungy heaps on the streets of Minneapolis. I was 33, nearly 34—and I was ready to be a mom. I'd been ready for years. There was just one problem: I had a terrible track record with love. After one final attempt at a romance had crashed and burned—in spite what I had read as stunning chemistry—I knew I had to reassess. 

The truth was, my desperation was strangling my chances at finding a partner/father-of-my-baby combo. I'd learned by my late 20s that women's fertility usually declines after age 35. So each birthday, my desperation got a little worse—and my dates could somehow sniff that out.

Just add sperm

At 33, I finally decided to make becoming a parent my main priority—even if that meant staying single. If I didn't at least try, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

Single parents by choice are people who happen to be single at the time they are ready to have a kid. They can be moms, dads, and non-binary folks. Some are single because they want to be. Some are single for reasons beyond their control. (Yep, that was me.)

But this group has one thing in common: Conception looks a little different than usual. It requires some kind of outside product. In my case, the missing ingredient was sperm. But as I was soon to learn, a small vial of this plentiful natural resource can cost a lot of cash in the world of artificial insemination.

I live what might be called a modest life. At age 33, I was a teaching assistant at a university. I was low-income, but debt-free. I had good health insurance. I even had some savings. But much of it could be wiped out by a few vials of sperm.

For years, I'd assumed that conceiving a child would come as part of a relationship, no up-front monetary investment required. The savings I had was earmarked for actually raising a child, not for the process of conception. Every parent knows that having a kid changes your whole expense profile—what you used to spend on daiquiris, you now spend on daycare, and then some. For me, having a kid was worth the expense. But I thought it would be nice to start the parenting journey with some kind of safety cushion.

Late that spring, I drove to a suburban medical complex just outside of Minneapolis. The fertility clinic my primary care provider had recommended was located there. The staff seemed open-minded, nonjudgmental. The clinic had a simple name: OBGYN & Infertility. But the pricing was not so simple. It would cost about $450 for an initial consultation and labs; about $350 to check if I was ovulating (some people require this more than once per cycle); and about $350 for each insemination attempt. 

This added up to at least $1,150 for my first month trying to conceive, plus nearly $700 for subsequent months of trying. Some of this would be covered by my insurance, so I was optimistic that I could pull it off. Now it was time to investigate the sperm situation.

Sophie Strosberg and daughter.
Sophie Strosberg and daughter.
| Credit: Sophie Strosberg

I was considering using sperm from an anonymous donor. But a former roommate of mine had once mentioned he was planning to donate sperm to a queer couple he knew; once I realized I could ask a friend, I started to make a list of possible donors. The first person I asked, someone I'd grown close to a few years prior, agreed. Let's call him Robert.

I'd left the fertility clinic with a glossy pamphlet for a couple of sperm banks. Even if I wanted to use Robert's sperm, I'd need to go through the sperm bank, since the fertility clinic I'd chosen did not allow fresh sperm from non-spousal donors—only frozen. The clinic staff had explained that they had to avoid any possible parentage lawsuits resulting from sperm-out-of-wedlock. Freezing the sperm helped with any legal ambiguity. 

Frozen out of the fertility clinic

As it turns out, the cost of insemination goes way up when you need frozen sperm. The cryogenic sperm banks that freeze the specimen require extensive screening and testing for all donors. This is another liability thing—no company wants to be pulled into a lawsuit over a surprise medical issue provoked by all this mixing of bodily fluids. In fact, the FDA requires a certain amount of testing of donor sperm.

To learn more about contemporary pricing, I called California Cryobank. California Cryobank is the biggest sperm bank in the United States. Using sperm from a tested donor from their vault—a donor you don't know—costs nearly $1,000 per vial. This is just the base rate, which requires you to select a donor using limited information. Things like donor photos require a cost upgrade. 

To use a "known" donor—someone you have made an arrangement with, someone like Robert—it costs more than $5,000 for the first set of vials. (A "set" consists of whatever your donor can produce in one ejaculation. It might be one vial or it might be eight.) This is, they say, due largely to the testing required. It does add up to a lot more than an STI panel, though.

And if you need more little swimmers? It's nearly $1,400 for each additional go-round, each extra set of vials. Plus, each time a donor gives a sample, the clinic requires medical testing at two separate visits six months apart. The sperm is only released after that six-month waiting period. Oh—and don't forget Fed-Ex fees, starting at $275 per shipment. I hung up the phone with my mind spinning. 

I assumed I might need to try insemination for four ovulation cycles before conceiving; it's typical for someone under 40 years old to require four to six cycles of intrauterine insemination to conceive. Adding the costs of the clinic and the sperm bank and Fed-Ex, I would be looking at $6,000 or $7,000 for an anonymous donor, and more than $8,000 for a known donor of my choosing. Sure, insurance might have helped with this somewhat. But it just didn't seem like the right move when sperm is so…available.

So, I decided to fly to California to try conceiving using some of the fresh stuff from Robert. I paid for Dixie cups and a turkey baster—and to get his sperm tested for motility and STIs. However, scheduling the plane ticket was harder. My menstrual cycles tend to be unpredictable; if anything, their length seems subject to the whim of my stress levels. I bought a ticket last-minute once a new menstrual cycle had begun, and a few days later I was bathed in the cool, easy sunshine of California in June, surrounded by the citrus trees and fairy dusters that drape over the sidewalks of Berkeley. I was nervous but elated to be putting my plan into action.

I trusted Robert completely. He wasn't romantically attracted to women, so it was unlikely there would be misplaced feelings from either of us. I also knew he was happy to both help me fulfill my dream and have some part of him out there in the world (he wasn't certain he'd have kids of his own). 

Once my ovulation test produced its digital smiley face, we tried our darndest to conceive. Each afternoon, he'd leave me a Dixie cup, and I got it where it needed to go. We did this for at least nine days, which, in retrospect, was probably overkill. I flew back to Minneapolis. But a couple of weeks later, the pregnancy test I took showed a disappointing single line.

Sophie Strosberg
Sophie Strosberg
| Credit: Sophie Strosberg

More risk, more reward?

After that experience, I decided that perhaps my next try should be closer to home. This was less about the expense of flights generally than the fact that they were difficult to time correctly. Plus, my stress levels shoot up when traveling, which is not great for conception. If I wasn't going to freeze and ship Robert's sperm and go the clinic route, I needed someone I could call over to my one-bedroom apartment as needed. So I decided that for the next round, I'd be open to having sex for sperm.

Sex elimated some problems while adding others. I knew it gave the sperm the best chance of surviving and going where they needed to go. But it also meant awkwardness, perhaps emotions, perhaps other messy human feelings. Perhaps I should try the Dixie cup again? I wondered. But ultimately, I was fine with being sexually active with men, generally speaking, so going this route next seemed to make sense.

I started putting the word out to friends that I was looking for a donor in Minneapolis. Not more than a couple of weeks later, sometime in August, a friend recommended someone she'd been dating. He was sweet, quiet, blond, a veteran. He worked in computer programming, and was into yoga, polyamory, and eating right. When we met for coffee, he came off as principled, caring, sincere. He said he wanted to do good in the world.

He got his STI tests through the VA clinic. We arranged for him to come over on short notice the next time I was ovulating. And we also decided we'd use the "natural method" of insemination—sex, that is. I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd asked him to use the Dixie cup. But I didn't. This was, after all, the most scientifically effective method: cervical fluid can work wonders. Besides, he was interested in nontraditional relationships, in intimacy without the strings of conventional romance. Though I didn't share his polyamorous leanings, right about then, I could appreciate the philosophy. His unconventional lifestyle matched my unconventional family plan.

When the time came, we stood looking at my bookshelf for a while, drinking the bottle of Malbec I'd gotten to loosen us up. Then, kindly but ever-so-awkwardly, we had procreational sex. 

Two weeks later, still no second line on my pregnancy test. We planned to try again soon.

In the meantime, though, I'd started dating someone. We were dating casually; it was very low-pressure. Being around him was easy. We weren't having sex. But I realized I need to have a serious talk with him soon. He knew I wanted a baby—I was up front about that by the end of the summer—but I realized there was no way I could be dating one person and trying to conceive with another at the same time.

After perhaps the most consequential relationship talk of my life, we decided he would be my donor. We'd use a donor contract to make our intentions clear and to provide as much legal protection as possible. There would be no strings attached.

And so, I found myself using plain-old, regular-old sex to get pregnant. The day I got the positive test, I was ecstatic. The donor and I parted ways a couple of months later. 

I think I made the right choices. I spent only a few hundred dollars total on the natural method, and it worked quickly. Still, it was risky. While the donor and I have each followed the terms of our contract, there have been some awkward, emotional conversations between us, especially during the stress of the pandemic. I wish I didn't have to choose between spending my life savings and taking those risks. 

Still, for the most part, things worked out. I have a gorgeous daughter. And as soon as that old desperation faded away, I snagged the love of my life, now soon to be my husband. And instead of using my savings on sperm, I used them to provide for my daughter—to keep her safe and warm during the biting-cold Minnesota winters. Eventually, the three of us moved down to Tucson, where the living is a bit easier.

In my story, the altruism of a few special men opened a doorway out of the box money had built. But what if we could find a way to provide safe, legally sound, and affordable sperm to single parents by choice, queer couples, or anyone else needing donor sperm? Then, we could throw that box straight out the window.