The "Genius Babies," and How They Grew

Exploring the "Nobel Prize sperm bank."
Feb. 8 2001 3:00 AM

The "Genius Babies," and How They Grew

Help Slate tell the story of the Nobel Prize sperm bank.

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So when the repository finally shut in 1999, it left behind a mystery. Except for two families that have discussed their (wonderful) kids publicly, the repository is a blank. No one seems to know what has happened to its children, its parents, its donors.

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Why shouldn't we leave it alone? Why should we want to know any more about it? Partly because it's a fascinating riddle—did it live up to its grand promise?—but also because the repository is not simply a peculiar historical footnote. We are entering a new age of eugenics. Cloning is months away, not decades. It is a guide to the future. Scientists will soon be manipulating embryonic genes, knocking out diseases, adding immunity, good looks, who knows what. Building better babies will soon become a science. Eugenics will be chic again (though surely not by that name). As reproductive law scholar Lori Andrews puts it, "private eugenics" has replaced public eugenics. Almost no one subscribes to Graham's civic interest in improving the American "germplasm." But it has been replaced by a very widespread consumer interest: How can I improve my own child?

As this new-genics arrives, it poses ethical questions that give hives to parents, doctors, and lawyers. And the new-genics raises questions about our expectations for our children that will keep child psychologists busy for decades.

The repository and its children matter because they preview this world to come. Graham promised parents smarter, better children than they could have naturally. He used the best science of his time (sperm storage and artificial insemination) to preserve and replicate what he saw as the most valuable genes in the world. New-genics will try to do much the same thing—though more precisely, more microscopically, more scientifically.

The repository families—mothers, fathers, children, and even donors—offer the only human testimony about whether the promise that technology makes better children can be fulfilled. The repository families can tell us how the scientific theory translates into lived human experience. The children can teach about the burdens and joys of genetic expectations. What kinds of demands do their parents place on them? Do they feel extra pressure to achieve because of their genes? Do they want to know about their genetic fathers?

Mothers and fathers can explain how such children alter parental expectations. Do they hold their kids to higher standards than they would have otherwise? Do they tell their children about their parentage? Why or why not? How does the genetic link to an anonymous donor change the relationship between parents and children?

The repository's parents, children, and donors have lessons for the parents and scientists who are grappling with the same questions now that they have grappled with over the last 20 years. It would be wonderful to hear from them—without interfering with their understandable desire for privacy.

Over the next months, Slate asks you to help us try to tell the story of the Repository for Germinal Choice and to find out what happened to its parents, children, and donors. This will be a journalistic experiment in two ways. First, it will unfold before you. As Slate editor Michael Kinsley explains in this "Slate Fare" column, I will write the story as I report it. It will be transparent journalism. As I learn more—or fail to—you will find out here. (In addition to learning about the participants, I will write about how the repository worked, why the sperm donors' offspring rights' movement is growing, what has happened to American eugenics, and how the repository changed the sperm-bank industry.)

The second part of the experiment is even more important. We hope to harness the collaborative power of the Web to make it succeed. I want you to be my sources and guides on this story. So we invite anyone connected with the repository—parents, children, donors, and employees, their friends and families, anyone else—to contact Slate by e-mailing me at plotzd@slate.com, calling me at (202) 862-4889, or mailing me at Slate, 1150 17th St. NW, 10th Floor, Washington, D.C., 20036.

A Critical Note About PRIVACY

The Repository for Germinal Choice, like almost all sperm banks, relied on a veil of privacy. Donors remained anonymous. So did clients. Only Graham and his employees knew who they were. Slate does NOT want to pierce that veil. We respect that privacy. We do NOT want to publish names or identifying characteristics or family secrets. We are only interested in hearing the stories of the repository, in learning about your experience and how it changed you. You have an important story—one that could educate and help others in a similar situation. No one needs to know your name for you to tell that story here.

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