Seed Money

Seed Money

Sperm donation has involved into a multimillion-dollar industry, opening the way for parents to shop for the attributes they value highly.

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2m 55sec

“Procreative Compounds: Popular Eugenics, Artificial Insemination, and the Rise of the American Sperm Banking Industry” by Cynthia R. Daniels and Janet Golden, in Journal of Social History (Fall 2004), George Mason Univ., 4400 University Dr. MS 3A2, Fairfax, Va. 22030–4444.

You have a better chance of getting into Harvard than of becoming a sperm donor. That’s because sperm donation has evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry with an eagle eye for quality control.

Sperm donors and their “donations” are subjected to stringent testing and screening. At most banks, men must be between 21 and 35 years old, between 5'8" and 6'2" tall, and meet weight targets. Adopted men or those with a family history of certain diseases (nearly 100 are listed) are disqualified. Would-be donors also are nixed if they’ve had sex with another man, with a woman who has had sex with a bisexual man, or with more than a specified number of partners.

But donor recipients seek more than health safety assurances, write Daniels and Golden, professors of political science and history, respectively, at Rutgers University. Most U.S. sperm banks (there were 28 in 2001) produce glossy catalogs lush with virile-looking models and donor resumés that provide SAT and GRE scores, educational attainment, musical ability, social characteristics (e.g., “quietly charismatic”), religion—even, in some cases, handwriting samples, hat size, and favorite pet.

From the beginning, consumers and the medical establishment have seen artificial insemination as a way to build a better baby. The first known case in which a donor’s sperm (as opposed to a spouse’s) was used occurred in 1884, when a Philadelphia physician chloroformed a woman he was treating for infertility, under the pretext of performing minor surgery, and inseminated her with the sperm of his supposedly best-looking medical student. By the 1930s, however, artificial insemination had become a quasi-respectable practice widely reported in medical journals.

With the introduction of cryopreservation, first employed in the cattle industry in the 1950s, sperm could be frozen and then thawed for use. Public acceptance came slowly, but when cases of HIV transmission were reported in the 1980s and ’90s, cryopreservation became a necessity, as it allowed sperm to be kept “on ice” until it tested clean.

Currently, tens of thousands of children are conceived in the United States each year with semen purchased from sperm banks. At companies such as California Cryobank, the samples are stored in numbered and color-coded vials: white caps for Caucasian, black for African American, yellow for Asian, and red for “all others.” Donors who best match the ideal Euro-American standard are most desired. Yes, consumers are disproportionately white, but even within other racial and ethnic categories, the most marketable donors are fair, tall, and slender.

With the birth of sperm banks, power to select donors shifted from the paternalistic physician to the consumer who paid for the product. What troubles Daniels and Golden is that the business has proven a breeding ground for “popular eugenics,” and heritable traits are often lumped with those that aren’t—such as religion or a Ph.D. Today, sperm banks dangle the prospect of a kid with the genetic right stuff to run fast, ace math, and go to Sunday school.

When artificial insemination was still a dirty little family secret, doctors sought sperm that would produce a child who looked like the presumed proud papa, or at least like a relative. No more. Tall, blond donors produce dozens of children, but
the 4'7" man need not even apply: Nobody wants the little guy to father Little Johnny.

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