Every time my wife and I come across something new to learn on our fertility journey, I can’t help but recall Dr. Suess’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Somehow, I doubt he intended his words for two gay women trying to become mothers, but they’re actually quite fitting. While the words have an overall encouraging tone, his book seems relevant for us right now more so because of its idea of going places to discover new things, to break into the unknown, and to expose ourselves to information we wouldn’t normally come across like, say, washed and unwashed sperm. Who ever woulda thunk? While the old adage rings true for flowers a rose is a rose is a rose the same can’t be said for a shot of jizz.
My wife and I recently learned that my awesome insurance will cover the majority of what we’re going to encounter on our fertility journey. In fact, the only thing that won’t be covered is the cost of sperm. At first, we didn’t think much of it. So we’re responsible for purchasing the sperm, that seemed reasonable enough. Then we discovered the fine print of buying sperm, and just how expensive sperm is. The going rate sans delivery fees, tank deposits, and the like is anywhere from $400 to $750 per sample. That’s one insemination, dose, shot, spouge, whatever you want to call it. One. And since most women don’t get pregnant on their first attempt with the fertility center, the cost of sperm can quickly add up. So naturally, most women want to make sure they’re getting the best bang (not quite literally) for their buck, which brings us to yet another decision to be made on the journey: Washed or unwashed sperm?
I said it before and I’ll say it again, labeling sperm washed or unwashed is a fantastic marketing tool. Let’s face it, nothing is appealing about sperm (and no, it’s not just because I’m gay that I say this). Sperm isn’t like the latest handbag, newest shoes, or hottest accessory that we all just can’t wait to get our hands on. No. It’s more like earwax. Or toe cheese. Or belly-button fuzz. If not for its greatest, and I daresay only, intriguing factor of being a necessary element in creating life, I think it’d be right up there on the list of things that no one wants to spend their money on, like root canals.
So how does a sperm bank, a business, make its product sound appealing? First, it should be noted that sperm is one of the very few items for sale that really doesn’t even need to be promoted. As long as men can’t get their wives pregnant, as long as lesbians choose to have children, and as long as single women decide to start families on their own, there will always be a market for buying sperm. And it is just that, a market, which is part of why sperm banks offer washed and unwashed sperm (both of which, by the way, are tested for disease, genetic mutations, quality, and motility, regardless of type).
Unwashed sperm, or as it’s sometimes called, “raw sperm,” is just that. Good old fashioned sperm. Straight from the source, mixed only with a cryoprotectant solution to help it freeze better until ready for purchase or use. Clearly, there is nothing wrong with this type of sperm. Before the first sperm bank was founded in 1953, raw, unwashed sperm was all that existed and we all know the world did fine with it.
Washed sperm is sperm that is separated from the semen, so as to enhance the fertilizing capacity of the sperm by getting rid of any possible non-motile (poor swimmers!) sperm, by way of centrifugation. The majority of sperm is sold in either 1cc or .5cc vials, which are amounts that have been determined to successfully impregnate women. If a women purchases, say, a 1cc vial of washed sperm, the sperm count of total motile sperm cells in that sample will be greater because the “washing” process yields the highest-quality sperm, or in layman’s terms, the best swimmers make it into the sample. And therein lies the real appeal of washed sperm.
For many women, infertility (either because of their own bodies or otherwise) results in a long process of trying, trying, trying to get pregnant. And since sperm is oh-so expensive, it makes sense that women would want sperm that has a greater likelihood (even if by just a few percentages) of making it to the egg, which some would argue is what you get with washed sperm, considering its higher concentration of motile sperm. Washed sperm has a higher count of good swimmers, and lacks any semen a fluid that is believed to cause cramping in women. It is because of these reasons, and because of the additional process of refining the sperm with a centrifuge, that sperm banks charge more for these vials.
Since Sara and I learned yesterday at the greatest fertility center ever that we can begin with IVF and don’t have to first try IUI, we don’t need the best swimmers. Unwashed sperm is what is often used in IVF. Since the egg is fertilized in a Petri dish and not inside of the woman, the sperm doesn’t need to travel anywhere. Remember, though, that all sperm from sperm banks has been tested for quality and motility, so it’s not as though an unwashed sperm sample is full of lazy duds.
There are many legitimate reasons that make washed sperm more popular. And it’s likely that washed sperm would and could sell itself based on its advantages alone. But the sperm bank marketing execs made a great financial decision when they chose their wording. Had unprocessed (raw, unwashed) sperm been instead labeled as “natural,” and processed (washed) sperm as just that, processed, I think they’d have a slightly harder sell on their hands.
Read more of Aela’s writing at Two Moms Make A Right
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