TreVaughn Roach-Carter had been waiting to donate his sperm for nearly two years in early 2020 when he visited the Sperm Bank of California. The day after providing his semen sample, he received a rejection email. The reason: He checked a box for being gay, and Food and Drug Administration regulations prohibit anonymous sperm donations from men who have had sex with men in the past five years.
“I thought these bans were something that was long gone and over and that I wouldn’t have to worry about it,” Roach-Carter said.
“I know that when the time comes for me to have children, it will be a lengthy, stressful and also probably expensive process. And I wanted to help make things as easy for other people as possible who would be going through similar things,” he said.
The shortage of Black donors was another reason he wanted to donate, he said. “People deserve to be able to have families that look like them.”
“I thought these bans were something that was long gone and over and that I wouldn’t have to worry about it.”
— TreVaughn Roach-Carter
Only about 1 percent of applicants make it through a highly selective process for sperm donation, according to Jaime Shamonki, the chief medical officer at California Cryobank, the country’s largest.
While the selection criteria are not specifically targeted at any ethnic group, they contribute to a shortage of Black sperm donors, said Cindy Duke, a Las Vegas reproductive endocrinologist and virologist.
The process requires a detailed physical and psychological exam, a three-generation family medical history, criminal background checks, genetic screening and semen analysis. Men need to be between the ages of 18 and 39 to donate, and many cryobanks require them to be at least 5-foot-7.
Cryobanks reported that the number of Black women seeking their services to conceive rose sharply during the pandemic after increasing steadily over the years. Yet Black sperm donors represent just a fraction of available supply — less than 2 percent at the country’s four largest sperm banks, according to an analysis by The Washington Post.
Roach-Carter, now 26, said he had initially inquired about being a sperm donor in 2018 but was advised to return after he completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Applicants with common illnesses or conditions including Type I diabetes, red-green color blindness, Huntington’s disease, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are rejected, said Robin Baird, the legal and policy director for Cryobio sperm bank in Columbus, Ohio.
Carriers of BRCA gene mutations that can increase the likelihood of breast and ovarian cancers are also disqualified.
“So for us, that was 20 opportunities that we could not even begin a process simply because they were part of the LGBTQ community.”
— Kenya Campbell
Over the past two decades, cryobanks have stopped disqualifying donor applicants who are carriers of genetic diseases including Tay-Sachs disease, which is more prevalent among people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, and the sickle cell trait, which is most common among Black people.
But the FDA ban on men who have sex with men has remained in place since 2005. The provision is based on data from the 1980s and early 1990s, at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
While donor sperm is quarantined for six months and tested for HIV before being released onto cryobank websites for purchase, the FDA said it had no immediate plans to end the ban.
“Despite the high level of accuracy and sensitivity of today’s donor screening tests for communicable diseases, FDA believes additional safeguards are needed to prevent the introduction, transmission, and spread of communicable diseases to protect recipients,” FDA press officer Veronika Pfaeffle said in an emailed statement.
“For example, although rare, it remains possible for a donor to test HIV negative and still be infected with HIV early in infection with the virus itself — or the antibodies against the virus might be too low to be detected,” she said.
But the FDA ban makes it even harder to overcome a shortage of Black sperm donors.
The Sperm Bank of California told The Post it had 243 candidates in the past three years who indicated on their applications that they’d had sex with men within the past five years. Of those, 120 were men of color. Twenty were Black.
“So for us, that was 20 opportunities that we could not even begin a process simply because they were part of the LGBTQ community,” said program director Kenya Campbell.
Seattle Sperm Bank said it turned away a “really great candidate” in the spring because he disclosed he was gay. “We’re huge LGBTQ advocates. The majority of the people who work with us are part of two-mom families,” said clinic relations manager Alyse Mencias. “It feels like we’re stuck in this duality where we wholeheartedly support and welcome the LGBTQ community, but then we have to fall under these ancient regulations.”
Dan Keating contributed data analysis for this story.