Rissa Griffith and April Harper had wanted to be parents their whole lives. Both refugees from Barbados, they met soon after Griffith arrived in Canada, in 2018, and fell in love. Moving to this country was like opening a door to a dream—a door that had always been closed to them. Back home, where LGBTQ+ relationships are criminalized, becoming parents together would have been impossible.

In Canada, they longed to have a child who shared their ethnicity. They struggled as visible minorities in this country, and bearing a child who shared their African ancestry and Black identity was important to them. At first, they believed it would be easy to find a Black sperm donor in a city as large and diverse as Toronto.

But, when the couple, who are now in their late twenties, began their search in 2021, they discovered that Canada has just one operating sperm bank that recruits Canadian men: the Toronto Institute for Reproductive Medicine (ReproMed). The rest have most of their samples shipped from the United States, where Canada has less oversight on screening. That year, ReproMed had only a handful of candidates to choose from—and, according to Griffith, none of them were Black.

About twenty years ago, those looking to start a family through alternative means had more choice. Canada had about twenty banks that collected sperm and about 100 that distributed it. But, in 2000, Health Canada tightened donor health-screening requirements, making them among the most rigorous in the world. This was done after one woman contracted HIV from a donor and another was infected with chlamydia. From then on, semen had to be quarantined for 180 days and retested before use, and donors had to be tested twice, six months apart.

Then, in 2004, Canada’s Assisted Human Reproduction Act added another layer to the process, making it illegal to sell sperm, eggs, cells, genes, or surrogacy and making these offences punishable by up to ten years in prison, a $500,000 fine, or both. All of this was meant to protect the health of women as well as that of children conceived through reproductive technologies and to reflect the same values that have prevented the commercialization of human organs for transplants.

Canadian sperm donors, who once earned $50 to $100 by donating their sperm, now receive no payment. They must endure numerous interviews, comprehensive medical exams, and multiple sets of blood and semen tests before they can donate. They must also complete detailed questionnaires on their family medical history, going back three generations. They can be reimbursed only for expenses associated with the donation, such as travel to the clinic or medications needed for the process. All of this to help create the possibility of a child whom they will likely not be allowed to contact—and for someone they do not know.

Naturally, a tedious process without compensation resulted in a drop in contributors, and many more banks closed their doors. At latest count, there were fewer than thirty Canadian men in the catalogue of the country’s one remaining sperm bank.

This falls far short of demand. A study in Reproductive Health estimated, based on 2011 census data, that more than 7,000 people sought donor insemination. Numbers vary widely, but about one in twelve heterosexual couples struggles with male infertility and might need donor sperm. Still, same-sex couples and single women looking to conceive now make up the large majority—over 70 percent—of sperm-bank users in Canada, according to the same study. People of colour, who often seek donors with the same racial background as theirs, face unique hurdles and can struggle to find a match in Canada.

It’s often estimated that 90 to 95 percent of donated sperm used in Canada is imported from the United States, where there are many more donors, according to Sara Cohen, a fertility lawyer who represents intended or surrogate parents and works with organizations that engage with reproductive technology. American laws governing sperm donations allow payment for a donor’s time, Cohen says. This enables compensation of approximately $100 to $150 (US) for each sperm donation and creates more supply.

But the US sperm-donation industry “is largely unethical and irresponsible,” according to Wendy Kramer, an American author and advocate who has been fighting for the rights of donor-conceived children for more than twenty years. Most US sperm banks promise donor anonymity, making it difficult for families who use the service to learn about health developments in their donor that may be genetic or to know about other children conceived from that donor’s sperm. Kramer, who has written extensively about the problems of donor anonymity and advocates for more medical screening, says that, with insufficient oversight and regulation of the sperm-donor industry, “money is put before the well-being of the children being born.”

In 2000, along with her son, Ryan, Kramer co-founded the Donor Sibling Registry, an organization that helps donor-conceived people track down their donors and half siblings. (The process ensures the donor and siblings agree to be contacted.) The organization has since helped more than 25,000 people in more than 100 countries contact their biological families and has allowed Ryan to contact some of his half siblings.

He was also able to find his donor through DNA testing and publicly available information. “If we had not met my son’s biological father, we would not have known about some pretty serious medical issues,” Kramer says. Now Ryan and his half siblings can watch out for signs and get annual screenings for inherited health conditions.

American sperm-donation standards caught media attention in Canada in 2015, when Angie Collins of Port Hope, Ontario, sued Atlanta-based sperm bank Xytex. Collins had given birth to a son using sperm from Xytex, but when the company accidentally revealed his name and she and other recipients researched his background, they learned that some information they’d received about the donor was incorrect. According to Collins’s lawsuit, the company had told the recipients that the donor was healthy and working on a PhD in neuroscience engineering.

In fact, he has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, both of which can be hereditary. He had dropped out of college and spent time in jail, according to the recipients’ research. Collins’s son is now a young teenager and has dozens of biological siblings, she says. Several have shown signs of mental health conditions, and she worries about her son, too, developing them. (Xytex denied any wrongdoing but ultimately settled out of court with Collins.)

In an interview with The Atlantic about the case, Dov Fox, a law professor at the University of San Diego, acknowledged that cases like this can create stigma around disability or illness. There’s a random genetic recombination that people accept when they become parents: you can’t completely control whether your child has a predisposition toward a disease. But you also want to be aware of what the risks are when you’re planning to have a baby.

Donors whose sperm is imported from the US through Canadian distributors also cannot be screened as extensively as Canadian donors. Imported sperm must meet a long list of criteria, including that it be quarantined for at least 180 days. But Canadian regulators have limited ability to ensure that US donors are honest and US sperm banks are thorough in their screening.

In 2020, seven Canadian families launched a $30 million suit against Outreach Health Group, an Ontario sperm importer and distributor owned by the Canadian arm of Xytex, for alleged misleading information about the health and background of their donor, who was known only as Donor 3116 in official records. According to the families’ statements of claim, four children born from the donor’s sperm had tested positive for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 1, a hereditary neuropathic condition that causes loss of muscle, sensation, and mobility. The condition, which has no cure, can be detected through genetic tests, the claimants alleged. According to the lawsuit, Outreach also did not verify details of the donor’s employment and educational background, which turned out to be false. (Xytex said it would not comment on the specifics of the ongoing litigation other than to deny the allegations.)

Meanwhile, Canadian samples must undergo extensive genetic testing, according to Tom Hannam, a fertility doctor in Toronto. ReproMed also requires potential donors to consent to its obtaining copies of all of their previous medical records from their treating physicians, making it more difficult for donors to lie or make mistakes on questionnaires.

For some lawmakers, the consequences of prohibiting payment for sperm have left too many Canadians at the mercy of a US supply. In 2018, Anthony Housefather, Liberal member of Parliament for Mount Royal, introduced a private member’s bill that would have revised the Assisted Human Reproduction Act to allow for payment for sperm, eggs, and surrogacy. In theory, that would have increased the supply and better protected parents and donor-conceived children.

However, Housefather’s bill failed, and Lucie Moncion, an independent senator from Ontario, has since tried, unsuccessfully, to pass similar bills. Opponents such as Conservative senator Judith Seidman have emphasized “the need to uphold Canadian values . . . through the non-commercialization of human life.”

Since it is women and donor-conceived people who are mostly affected by the problems in the sperm-donation industry, changes are difficult, Collins says. People desperate to bear a child are highly vulnerable and are unlikely advocates for a more robust system, agrees Kramer, drawing on her personal experience.

“I was in such a place of desperation,” she says, “thinking, ‘Just give me the baby, and I will figure everything else out later.’”

Even if Canada can increase the supply and diversity of Canadian sperm donations, more is needed to protect parents and donor-conceived people, Cohen says. Canada needs a government donor registry so children can access identifying and health details of their donor parent, she says.

“What happens if the sperm bank closes?” she asks. “Nineteen years from today, you want information—well, it’s not held by a government.”

Many Canadians avoid sperm banks altogether, says Cohen, often because they can’t find a match through ReproMed or other banks. But this approach—when it involves strangers—comes with hefty risks.

Tanisha Lepine of Oshawa, who is white, was searching for a Black donor because she wants her children to look like her wife, who is Black. “I never want anyone to question my wife,” says Lepine, “or think she’s the nanny.”

Lepine and her wife wanted to use imported US sperm but found it too expensive. It was going to cost roughly $6,000 for three vials from a Black donor in the US, in addition to fertility-clinic fees. “I don’t have almost ten grand sitting around waiting when I’m trying to start a family,” she says.

Lepine found a free Canadian donor through a Facebook community and was able to inseminate herself at home using a disposable, needleless syringe—known colloquially as the turkey baster method.

Finding a Black US donor was not an option for Griffith and Harper, since the specimen would need to be shipped to a local clinic and they could not afford those fees. After failing to find a Canadian donor through ReproMed, they tried negotiating with potential donors through a Facebook group.

One man tried to scam them, asking for unreasonably high compensation for his expenses. When they explained the legally allowable donor expenses, which include travel and insurance costs, he told them he wanted a little extra.

They faced more disappointments. One man agreed to provide a donation at no charge but on the condition that he “naturally inseminate”—meaning he would have sex with one of them. Griffith and Harper were horrified.

They received two donations from people of colour, but Griffith and Harper did not get pregnant. When they eventually reached one Black donor they felt comfortable with—he was kind and told them he “just wants to help a Black family”—things seemed to be turning around. At last, Griffith saw the mark on a home pregnancy test that told them they were carrying a child. But, just a few weeks later, Griffith miscarried.

They waited and tried a second time. “We had success right way, but then once again . . . ” Griffith’s voice cracks. They didn’t finish the sentence. Eventually, they add: “It has been traumatic.”

But the couple’s longing to have and raise a child makes them willing to take risks. They plan to go back to their donor, and if he declines, they’ll have to keep looking. 

Katharine Lake Berz
Katharine Lake Berz is a writer based on Vancouver Island and in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the Canadian Press and on CBC Radio.
Yazmin Butcher
Yazmin Butcher is a Toronto-based graphic designer, creative director, and comedian.