China needs more.

Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The Ad That Cracked China's Infertility Taboo

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
Read More.
a | A

The flash deal was unlike any that had appeared before on the Chinese group-buying website Juhuasuan: Qualified young men could be paid as much as 5,000 yuan ($805) for making a donation to a government-run sperm bank. The colorful advertisement only appeared for two days on the site owned by the e-commerce titan Alibaba, but it received 22,017 responses.

In China, where public discussion of sex remains tightly controlled by the government, the pitch was the equivalent of a cry for help. The country's infertility rates are rising rapidly among couples of child-bearing age, reaching 12.5 percent in 2012, compared with 3 percent in 1992, according to a government study. There are about 40 million infertile couples in China, as well as a chronic shortage of sperm donations.

The causes of China's infertility problems haven't been established. But among the public, government, and the scientific community, there is growing suspicion that chronic pollution is to blame. In addition, a decade-long study at Shanghai's government-run sperm bank showed that the quality of the sperm being collected was in decline, suggesting that unhealthy lifestyles -- the high rates of smoking and drinking among Chinese men -- might be contributing to the shortage. There also is speculation that rising infertility reflects the trend of China's upwardly mobile couples having children later in life.

Whatever the cause, China's infertility rates are about the same as those in Europe and North America.

The similarities end there, however. China’s so-called one-child policy places a unique burden on couples to honor the deeply held cultural and familial obligation to perpetuate a family bloodline. And the question of sperm donation is particularly fraught. For recipients, it can be an embarrassment, or perceived as the severing of the blood link between a husband and his family (the focus on bloodlines is also why Chinese families adopt at such low rates). For donors, there is an extreme reluctance to pass on a family bloodline blindly, to produce children who won't be known to biological fathers, who then wouldn't be able to fulfill their familial responsibilities.

This reticence on the part of donors accounts for some of the shortages of sperm regularly reported by China's 19 state-run sperm banks.  The discomfort also is reflected in the government's tight grip on these institutions. Regulations require that donors be between 22 and 45, in good health, disease-free and not gay or foreign nationals. The donors' sperm count is required to be three times that of an average healthy male, as defined by the World Health Organization.

Some provinces impose requirements that are even more stringent. For example, the center in Jiangsu Province restricts donations to non-working men -- usually students -- because career men (or, at least those who want to donate) are suspected of unhealthy lifestyles. That means about 80 percent of sperm donors are turned away, and, as of 2012, 1,000 couples were on a waiting list that was a year and a half long.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the government's insistence that a single donor's sperm can only be used for the conception of five children. The regulation was imposed to ensure that children from the same donor father don't have any chance of becoming mates as adults. But it exceeds most international standards for donor sperm. For example, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends a limit of 25 children per population of 800,000. The U.K. cap is 10 children.

Alibaba's flash promotion won't make a dent in the problem. The men who signed up will still be subjected to the rigorous health checks required by national and local law. And many others, who signed up as a lark or were lured by what they believed would be easy money, will probably drop out. At best, the ad could contribute to easing the stigma attached to sperm donations.

Most of the impediments to access to donated sperm would be lifted if the government opened the system to private competition. China already has a thriving if unsavory black market in human sperm, and Chinese state media reports that Chinese women are increasingly making use of overseas sperm banks and IVF clinics. A system that was calibrated to Chinese sensitivities could meet the needs of millions of couples while providing Alibaba with a real opportunity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net