Is China Running out of Sperm?

Infertility is a growing problem in China, and thanks to cultural and legal issues sperm banks are facing a critical shortage.

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A local man sits on a bench outside a semen collection room at a hospital in Shanghai, 27 November 2003.

Infertility is a growing problem in China. In southern Guangdong province, 14 percent of the population, which numbered 104 million in 2010, cannot conceive — and the fact that the province has only one sperm bank doesn’t help. Couples generally have to wait at least a year to have their names called. The sperm shortage has even prompted a desperate plea from a government official, according to one Chinese-language news site, asking college students to donate.  “Donating your sperm is healthy,” said Luo Wenzhi, the head of Guangdong’s family planning commission, in an interview. “It won’t hurt you nor kill you.”

Getting men to donate sperm has proved a challenge in China. Sperm is associated with vitality, and giving it away is considered a cultural taboo. Wang Jian, a graduate student in Beijing, told the China Daily that he kept his donation a secret from his family, who he feared might “kill me for letting a stranger use the precious family seed.” In June, a man in the central city of Wuhan said his son died soon after donating sperm at a facility run by a local university. According to an article in the China Daily, citing earlier coverage in the Yangtze River Times, Zheng Jinglong is now suing the school for nearly $650,000. His son, a medical student, donated his sperm four times at the facility.

Another reason for the shortage has to do with a law that requires any given sperm donation to be shared among a maximum of five women; in other countries a sample is often shared among 10 women. The law stems from the fear that two people born of the same sperm might end up marrying each other, according to the the China Daily — although in a country with 1.3 billion people, experts say the chances of that are pretty remote.