KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Kelly McEvers. Commercial sperm banks have been around since the early 1970s. And today, women who can afford to use them. But now banks aren't the only source for women hoping to get pregnant. More and more websites are popping up where men who are willing to donate their sperm for free can meet women who are hoping to get pregnant. It's too soon to know exactly how many people are going online to do this, but here is what we do know - thousands of people have logged on. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has the story. And a quick warning to parents - this story might be too explicit for small children.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: A few months ago on a sperm donation website called Voy a woman named Jennifer posted a public message - I'm looking for a donor close to where I live, it began, I'm willing to drive to you, it continued, but I prefer artificial insemination. We will discuss natural insemination. Natural insemination - sex with the sole aim of getting pregnant. I met Jennifer at a cafe near her home outside Sacramento. She asked I not use her last name to protect her medical privacy. She says she got a lot of replies that message - one caught her interest. They emailed and exchange pictures.
JENNIFER: We talk on the computer, we talk on Skype, so it's not like he's not real.
HERSHER: So, can I ask what he looks like?
JENNIFER: He's white. And he says that he's 6'3" and he has green eyes and, like, dirty blonde hair. (Laughing).
HERSHER: Jennifer is just 18, and she feels like she's being forced to make a tough decision. Two years ago, she found out she has an ovarian disorder that her doctors tell her will make her infertile by the time she's in her mid-20s. If she wants a baby, it has to be now. A sperm bank is too expensive so, with her mother's approval, Jennifer did what more and more women are doing - she turned to the Internet - to one of many informal, unregulated websites that offer free sperm. But the donor Jennifer met online wanted her to have sex with him. Jennifer has never had a serious boyfriend. She was nervous.
JENNIFER: At first I was just like, can I talk you out of doing this? And he says, well I guess, yeah, but are you really not open to it? And so I was just thinking, you know, maybe since he's helping me out maybe I'll just let him have it, you know? I don't know how to explain it. It's just kind of, like, one moment of awkwardness and then can come out with a lifetime of happiness, so.
HERSHER: A lifetime of happiness. A baby - that's Jennifer's motivation. But what do men get out of donating sperm online?
STEPHEN BOHRS: Well, I am Stephen Bohrs, 27 - started talking about being a sperm donor back in August of 2012. And I've met with 16 different women.
HERSHER: And how many of those have resulted in children?
BOHRS: Seven in the last two years.
HERSHER: Pretty much every time Bohrs donates his sperm, he does it by having sex.
BOHRS: I'm a guy. I'm not going to lie, the sex is nice. But it's not about the sex. I am there to help them achieve their dreams. And I take it very seriously.
HERSHER: And what do you get from it other than the satisfaction of helping them?
BOHRS: I don't see why I should look for anything more. I've met a lot of people along the way that are into it for different things - some men are in it strictly to have sex with women, some men are in it to brag to their friends - oh I got another one pregnant. You know, I've heard a lot of horror stories. People like that shouldn't be involved in the process.
HERSHER: One of the websites Bohrs uses to meet women is called The Known Donor registry. It's one of the most established websites in the U.S. right now for sperm donation. And Bethany Gardner, it's cofounder, says, while most donors are trustworthy, like it or not, some men are in it just for the sex.
BETHANY GARDNER: Women want to have a baby - it may or may not involve sex - perverts are going to flock. I mean, it just by its nature, has a giant target on it.
HERSHER: And although about a third of women who use her site check a box saying, they're open to having sex with the donor - Gardner thinks very few women actually go through with it.
GARDNER: It's the minority, by far. Most women use artificial insemination. You would think everyone - it's like a big orgy - like everyone is just having sex. But that is not (laughing) that is not at all the case.
HERSHER: Sociologists who study this stress there is no way to know how many women actually get pregnant via natural insemination. There just isn't data. But cost is likely a big factor driving women online for sperm. Traditional sperm banks can be extremely expensive - $500 or more for just one vial of sperm. Insurance rarely covers it and, according to sociologist Rene Ameling, that's just the beginning.
RENE AMELING: Not only are they paying for the cost of sperm - they pay for donor profiles, they pay for shipping and then if they choose to have a physician help with the insemination they have a doctor's office visits and so it can easily run into the thousands of dollars in order to try to attempt a pregnancy through a traditional sperm bank.
HERSHER: But sperm banks offer something casual donation does not - safety. Free sperm aren't frozen or tested for disease.
AMELING: So women are risk for sexually transmitted diseases, children are at risk for genetic diseases and then everyone is at risk for legal complications.
HERSHER: And there are legal complications. There have been recent custody battles and child support suits over children conceived with donated sperm. As for Jennifer, she decided not to go through with natural insemination. She says, looking back, it would've been a mistake to get pregnant with that guy she met on a sperm donation forum. Instead, she's decided not to rush into having a child just yet. She's applying to college. She wants to be an elementary school teacher. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.