Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The lack of Black sperm donors is a nationwide problem


African American women who turn to sperm banks often have a difficult time finding a match. That's because there are so few Black donors. Researchers in Kansas are trying to solve that dilemma. From the Kansas News Service, Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports.

BEK SHACKELFORD-NWANGANGA, BYLINE: For as long as she can remember, Sharla has dreamed of being a mom. We're only using her first name to protect her medical privacy. In her apartment, it's obvious family is important to her. Framed photos of her and her relatives, smiling and affectionate, fill her walls or perch on side tables. Sharla really wants a baby, but she says she hasn't found the right person to start a family with.

SHARLA: Do you wait and possibly never meet that person, or do you go ahead and have children? And I decided for myself that I wanted to go ahead and have children.

SHACKELFORD-NWANGANGA: So, about 4 1/2 years ago, Sharla started a fertility journey. Sharla had plans to conceive using sperm from a donor. Most people search through online catalogs for a sperm donor. And when Sharla began her search, she knew she wanted someone who was Black, like she is.

SHARLA: You're basically going through banks and going through banks, trying to find, you know, an African American donor.

SHACKELFORD-NWANGANGA: For Black women, that's hard to do. A 2023 study from the American Society of Reproductive Medicine found that only about 3% of the sperm donors at the nation's largest donor banks are Black. It can be a complicated process for donors. They have to undergo screening for diseases and genetic disorders. Typically, they must provide generations of family medical history. That can reduce the pool of candidates. Sharla combed through almost a dozen domestic and international sperm bank catalogs and was unable to find a Black donor. She's now trying to conceive using a white donor.

SHARLA: I had to take a beat when I finally realized that I was not going to find a donor. And I had to do a lot of soul searching and really kind of think about it.

SHACKELFORD-NWANGANGA: Researchers like Dr. Courtney Marsh are working to solve this issue. She's a University of Kansas professor and fertility specialist.

COURTNEY MARSH: I had at least three couples that came to me and were delaying their treatment because they could not find sperm. And, I - you know, I thought, well, gosh, I can help with this.

SHACKELFORD-NWANGANGA: Marsh and a team of researchers hosted focus groups in Kansas to hear from Black men and learned there are complicated reasons for the donor shortage.

MARSH: 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 or what that would look like.

SHACKELFORD-NWANGANGA: One of the focus group participants is Ray Williams, a football coach and father of five. He worries a white family or someone not culturally aware would purchase Black sperm. Williams says Black men often don't trust the medical system.

RAY WILLIAMS: So that's why a lot of Black males don't go to the doctor. They refuse to because they feel like everything is an investigation that is putting them in the system.

SHACKELFORD-NWANGANGA: So, some cryo banks are spreading information about the benefits of being a donor and say they're working to diversify sperm bank reserves by building facilities in diverse areas. However, people like Angela Stepancic are coming up with their own ways to address the shortage. She's a Washington D.C. resident who was unable to find a Black sperm donor. When she attended sperm bank webinars and organizers told her they couldn't find people of color to donate, she didn't like that answer.

ANGELA STEPANCIC: It just led me to say, you know what? Instead of me trying to bring more people to you, why don't we do this for ourselves? Why don't we start our own cryobank?

SHACKELFORD-NWANGANGA: And Stepancic took a step to do that. A couple of years ago, she founded the Reproductive Village Cryobank. She's currently still raising funds, but plans to open sperm banks designed for and run by Black people in cities like Washington, D.C. and Atlanta. Stepancic says she aims to open her first location by the end of the year. For National Public Radio, I'm Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF ART MUSIC'S SONG, "FEBRUARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bek Shackelford
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Related Stories