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Randi Hutter Epstein, MD, MPH Headshot

Sperm Donation: The Tricky Nature of Sperm Semantics

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I always considered myself a careful writer when it came to word selection. Unlike when I speak -- a free-association soufflé of banter heated with gossip -- when I write, I consider the implications. So I was shocked to receive an angry comment in response to a sperm blog.

Sperm semantics are a funny thing, but I never thought I would really rankle a reader. I write about sperm a lot. I've written about their waywardness -- millions of them can't seem to get from point A to point B ( A = edge of vagina; B = inside of egg). I've noted their utter simplicity -- a blob of DNA with a tail -- compared with the almighty egg, the largest cell in the body, loaded with complex inner organelles. (I am biased, I admit, but let's face it: The human egg houses the machinery to energize the dual strands of genetic material into a person. A stunning feat.)

So after I wrote a piece about sperm banks, Sandra Haggard, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Maine, Augusta, commented that the oft-used phrase "sperm donation" infuriates her. She suggested "sperm source." I really didn't see her point at first, but after a long conversation, I found her argument persuasive.

"Sperm donation," she explained, suggests altruistic donors offering something to the needy, much the way a kidney donor will hand over a kidney, or much the way the rich give their leftovers to charity. She's not against the needy bit, because anyone who, for whatever reason, is in the market for sperm desperately needs the stuff. What irked her was placing the emphasis on the donors rather than the recipients.

"Sperm source" sounds more like a winter wonderland of sperm, where the recipient is doing the action. She can stroll through this frozen field and pick and choose and pay for precisely what she wants. Put that way, "sperm source" sounds closer to the reality of the situation, particularly, when you add the word "pay." The other part of "donor" that bothered Haggard is that it avoids the payment part. These men are not donating for free. Whatever their motives -- purely altruistic or not -- they are doing it for a fee.

You can say that all of this is silly semantics. But, as most of us know, semantics sway policy and ethics and regulations. In the same sort of way, the folks who manage the lucrative sperm- and egg-trading companies do not like to call themselves "entrepreneurs." And yet they are. They prefer something more along the lines of "service providers," as if they are like Red Cross workers. As Debra Spar notes in her brilliant book "The Baby Business," the issue is not merely the jargon but what the terminology represents. "As a commercial enterprise," she writes, "the fertility business remains rather odd. On the one hand, it is undeniably a business: fertility clinics earn profits, advertise their wares and compete, albeit subtly, on the quality and reliability of their services. They boost cadres of technologists who push the boundaries of production and sit amid clusters of related providers: sperm banks, testing facilities, hormone suppliers, and the like. On the other hand, though, this apparatus of this for-profit structure is devoted to producing a distinctly noncommercial outcome: a child."

In the 1970s, we focused on the language of feminism to transform the way women were perceived by society. "Miss" and "Mrs." morphed into "Ms." Perhaps now, as we continue to write about the 21st century's booming reproductive technology enterprise, it's time to evaluate the vocabulary list and think twice about our word choices and the messages we are trying to portray.