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This Black Kansas woman couldn't find a sperm donor who looks like her. It's a nationwide problem

Sharla stands in a park in Johnson County. She's trying to conceive using donor sperm, but she couldn't find a Black donor. We're only using her last name to protect her medical privacy.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
Kansas News Service
Sharla stands in a park in Johnson County. We're only using her last name to protect her medical privacy. Sharla is trying to conceive using donor sperm but she couldn't find a Black donor.

Black women hoping to conceive using donor sperm often have to choose a donor from a different race or put their fertility journey on hold because of a shortage of Black sperm donors. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center are trying to find out why.

JOHNSON COUNTY, Kansas — Ever since she was little, Sharla knew she wanted to be a mom. Sharla has warm childhood memories of family trips and game nights, and she said she wants to recreate those memories with a child of her own.

But Sharla hasn’t found the right person to settle down with. About four years ago, she said she felt like time was running out. To protect her medical privacy, we are only identifying Sharla by her first name.

“I decided for myself that I wanted to go ahead and have children,” Sharla said while sitting in her apartment in Johnson County, Kansas.

Sharla began her fertility journey alone, with plans to conceive using sperm from a donor.

From the very beginning, Sharla knew she wanted to use sperm from someone who is Black like she is. But she had no idea how hard it would be to find that donor.

“You're basically going through banks and going through banks trying to find an African American donor,” Sharla said.

Sharla isn’t alone. Across the nation, other Black families also struggle to find culturally-congruent sperm donors. A 2023 study from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine found that only about 3% of the sperm donors at 14 of the nation's largest donor banks are Black. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center are trying to find out why.

Sharla holds empty vials of medication used to trigger ovulation. She is saving the vials for a pregnancy photoshoot if her fertility treatment is successful.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
Kansas News Service
Sharla holds empty vials of medication that is used to trigger ovulation. She said she is saving the vials for a pregnancy photoshoot if her fertility treatment is successful.

Sharla’s search

When Sharla began her fertility journey, she said she had a hard time finding a doctor she worked well with. Sharla is in her 40s, so when she switched to a new OB-GYN in 2022, she felt like the clock was ticking. She and her new doctor got to work right away with plans for her to conceive using intrauterine insemination, or IUI, where prepared sperm is injected directly into the uterus.

That’s when she ramped up her search for a Black sperm donor. Most sperm banks have an online catalog that allows people to search for specific qualities, like eye color or height, to help find donors with characteristics they want.

When Sharla selected the "African American" box, the pool of donors shrank from thousands of people to only a small handful. She was surprised.

“To the point that I started actually looking online,” she said, “to see if anyone else was experiencing what I was experiencing.”

Sharla found out she wasn’t alone.

People searching for sperm donors have to consider more than just physical attributes. There are specific genetic factors or viruses you have to watch for, too. Sharla’s list of Black donors got even smaller when she got more specific. Some of the websites she looked at didn’t even give "African American" as a sorting option.

In the end, after searching for about six months through more than a dozen catalogs, some even international, Sharla could not find a Black donor that met her needs. Ultimately, she chose a white donor.

“I had to take a beat when I finally realized that I was not going to find a donor,” she said. “I had to do a lot of soul searching and really kind of think about it.”

Sharla said it wasn’t an easy decision and she hopes other families will have more options in the future. She is currently still working on getting pregnant with IUI.

The numbers

Just like Sharla, many other Black women have had to use a donor with a different racial makeup. Chicago rapper Da Brat told media outlets last spring that she and her wife selected a white donor because only one Black donor was presented to them.

Sperm banks, also called cryobanks, are for-profit businesses that collect, store and sell sperm. Though they’re called "sperm donors," men providing sperm are generally paid.

Local researchers tackling the shortage

Dr. Courtney Marsh works for the University of Kansas Medical Center as a professor and an OB-GYN. She specializes in fertility and endocrinology. Marsh said she learned about the shortage of Black sperm donors from her patients.

“I had at least three couples who came to me and were delaying their treatment because they could not find sperm (from a Black donor),” she said. “And I thought, ‘Well gosh, I can help with this.’”

Last summer, Marsh won a grant to study why the shortage of Black donors exists. She and a team of other KU researchers put together focus groups with people from Black communities in Topeka, Wichita and Kansas City. The focus groups were led by Black male medical students.

Marsh and the other researchers are currently analyzing responses from the focus groups so the project is not complete. But so far, Marsh has learned there are a lot of complicated reasons for the shortage. They’ve heard from participants that sperm banks don’t do enough to educate or recruit Black donors.

“They’ve maybe heard of sperm donation and heard of sperm banks, but have no idea where to go or how to do the process,” she said.

Marsh said the team also found that including Black women in the conversation is important. She said they held focus groups with women to hear their thoughts on sperm donation.

When they’ve analyzed their findings, the goal is to come up with solutions to the shortage. This may include working with sperm banks to help them direct marketing and education to the Black community. Marsh said the researchers also plan to bring focus group participants together to present their findings and brainstorm solutions.

“I feel like it’s going to be multi-pronged,” she said. “Able to reach out and address this complex problem.”

Ray Williams, a local football and track coach, participated in a focus group to discuss the shortage of Black sperm donors.
Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga
Kansas News Service
Ray Williams, a local football and track coach, participated in a focus group to discuss the shortage of Black sperm donors.

Input from a focus group participant

Ray Williams agrees with Marsh that there are a lot of complex reasons for the shortage of Black donors. Williams, who lives in the Kansas City area, participated in one of the focus groups for the study.

Williams coaches track and football and is a father of five. In his view, there are a lot of historical factors that might keep Black men like himself from donating sperm.

Williams said Black children are often fetishized, and he worries a white family or someone not culturally aware would purchase Black sperm. Also, Williams said men in the Black community attach a lot of pride to their offspring, and it’s a byproduct of slavery, when enslaved men were often forced to reproduce so their children could be sold.

“Men were used not only as physical workers, but they were also, for lack of better terms, men were raped,” Williams said. “We were used as objects.”

Some present-day societal issues also dissuade many Black men from donating sperm, according to Williams. Black men, Williams said, are more likely to have negative experiences with police and the criminal justice system. That can make them skeptical of donating sperm.

“They don't feel comfortable doing that, because everything gets tracked,” Williams said. “They feel like, ‘If I do that, now it comes back on me somehow. It's going to come back on me.’”

Williams said other issues, like a lack of trust in the medical system or health care access, are additional barriers to Black men donating sperm. Sperm banks will have to work carefully to recruit Black men like him and may need to change qualifications to make it more accessible.

“Education is the biggest piece to me,” Williams said. “Don't say ‘Hey, we want more African American sperm donors.’ Educate as to why.”

Diversifying sperm banks

Some cryobanks are working to diversify sperm reserves by building facilities in diverse areas and spreading information about the benefits of being a donor.

But Washington, D.C., resident Angela Stepancic is taking her own approach by creating a sperm bank run by and for Black people. A few years ago, Stepancic and her wife were looking for a Black sperm donor. She said they were surprised at what they found in the sperm bank catalogs.

“We realized that there were a lot fewer Black and brown donors than we thought,” Stepancic said. “At the point we were looking, there were only 12 donors across America that identified as Black.”

After searching for more than six months, Stepancic and her wife ultimately chose a Latino donor. She hopes their next child is conceived with sperm from a Black donor.

Stepancic said she had questions about why there were so few Black donors, so she began attending sperm bank webinars to ask. She was told that sperm banks can’t find any Black people, and she didn’t like that answer. It ultimately led her to a revelation.

“Why don’t we do this for ourselves? Why don’t we start our own cryobank?” she said.

A couple years ago, Stepancic founded the Reproductive Village Cryobank. She is still fundraising, but she said the goal is to open an inclusive sperm bank in Washington, D.C., by the end of this year, with more in diverse cities like Atlanta or Houston in the future.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health care disparities and access for the Kansas News Service. You can email her at r.shackelford@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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