PHILIP Luo has been looking into “reproductive insurance” — to freeze his sperm and store it in the sperm bank in case anything happens to him before he wants children.
Last October, the 27-year-old chemist was found to have something suspicious with his prostate during an annual medical check.
“Luckily, I did some further check-up and it was nothing,” he recalls. “But the doctor said the worst could have been prostate cancer. My parents, especially my mom, were utterly shocked and scared. My mom has been pushing me to get a girlfriend and get married even more since then.”
An only child, Luo had not thought about his own child but was confronted with the simple question now, “What if I get a disease like that before I get married and have a child?”
The Shanghai Human Sperm Bank at Renji Hospital, the only one in town, confirmed a rapid increase in the number of people, like Luo, who are saving sperm as a kind of insurance.
Hospital officials would not quantify the increase, but the bank now has nearly 1,500 samples from people — some as young as 17 — who have saved for future use, since the bank’s founding in 2003. A total of 53 babies have been born from frozen sperm, all healthy. The oldest is now 10 years old.
The bank’s website lists unhealthy lifestyle — environmental pollution and stress from work and society — along with a higher incidence of severe diseases like cancer, as the major killers of male reproductive ability. Azoospermia, absence of motile sperm, and oligozoospermia, low sperm count, are the major problems among infertile men.
The site urges men who want to postpone being a parent, or are employed in high-risk positions, or are facing radiation therapy, chemotherapy or surgery to freeze sperms now. The cost for storage is 2 yuan (32 US cents) a day, just under US$120 for a year.
In addition to reproductive insurance for those like Luo, the bank’s main purpose is to use donated sperm to help infertile families.
About 10 percent of Shanghai couples are infertile, and the number is increasing. About 10 percent of these couples turn to the sperm bank for help. They often need to wait for months and are not given choices of donor characteristics.
In China, the 2010 infertility rate was put at 10 to 15 percent of couples, up from 8 to 10 percent a decade earlier. To use the sperm bank, couples must show a marriage certificate and proof of infertility, among other papers required by the Ministry of Health.
The city’s sperm bank is among the few in China with more than 10,000 total samples. Lack of sperm donation has been a major issue at all 18 sperm banks nationwide. The Ministry of Health has strict rules on founding and managing of sperm banks, allowing only one in each province.
A donor can give to only one bank, and only five women are allowed to use sperm from the same donor — a number considered too low by many experts.
Most of the 18 sperm banks suffer from lack of donors, and black markets exist, especially in places where sperm banks have not been established.
“I now have more understanding of those who suffer from infertility, but still,” Luo, the chemist, pauses. “The thought of some stranger carrying my child is weird. I just don’t think I’m quite ready for that.”
Many Chinese believe that “a drop of sperm is worthy of 10 drops of blood,” an old saying that highlights the preciousness of sperm, considered by many to be linked to one’s rooted energy, difficult to cultivate once hurt.
Loss of sperms is believed by many, especially in remote areas, to harm such energy. To many people, donating sperm is associated with a filthy image rather than a good deed.
“I didn’t want people to know that I donated sperm,” says Ray Lin, a salesman who made a donation when he was a student and needed the money. “It sounds very strange. They may make presumptions about me.”
In March, the sperm bank in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the last of the 18 to be established, started offering samples to infertile families.
It was six months after the bank was open last year, and only slightly over 100 people came to donate. Seventy percent of these donors were university students, and only 18 percent of donors’ sperms were qualified.
According to research conducted by the National Population and Family Planning Commission, domestic male sperm fertility has dropped by 1 percent annually since the 1980s.
In April, the Shanxi sperm bank, which suffered severely from lack of supply, took to the most crowded streets with a poster saying “emergent lack of sperm source” to promote sperm donation. Very few people stopped even though many passed by, gossiping about their posters. Their sperm donation hotline also received calls that mocked them.
The procedure of donating sperm is long and enduring, while not many are qualified. Shanghai sperm bank’s website says the donor must be under 45 years old, more than 165 centimeters tall, with near sight prescription less than 500 degrees, and have at least a vocational school education.
The donor is required to take a physical examination, and those who are qualified are to donate a certain amount of sperm in three to six months, then undergo another check-up six months later.
The entire process takes almost a year and requires frequent visits to the hospital, while the donors receive only a few thousand yuan as a nutrition fee.
Most of the sperm banks have only 5,000 to 6,000 samples, a number far short of meeting the demand. But it is still much better than egg banks, which require more complicated technology to obtain, freeze and store.
In 2010, Renji Hospital started to build the country’s first egg bank and said it would open in three years. The bank is still waiting for permission from the Health Ministry.
Around the country, there are a handful of places where eggs from infertile couples can be frozen and used, and extra eggs, if agreed to by providers, can be used to help other infertile couples, following Ministry of Health rules.
Egg banks don’t exist yet, and channels for obtaining ova for in-vitro fertilization are very limited.
“I’ve been checking into freezing my eggs overseas,” says Yang Hong, a local businesswoman, 32, who is single. “I really hope we can have one locally, which would make everything easier.”