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.

Click here for the editor's explanatory introduction to this new Slate feature.

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Twenty years ago, on an outbuilding of his Southern California estate, tycoon Robert K. Graham began a most remarkable project: the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners. Part altruism, part social engineering, part science experiment, the repository was supposed to help reverse the genetic decay Graham saw all around him by preserving and multiplying the best genes of his generation. By the time Graham's repository closed in 1999, his genius sperm had been responsible for more than 200 children.

David Plotz David Plotz
David Plotz is Slate's deputy editor. If you are interested in sharing any information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, send it toplotzd@slate.com

What happened to them? This is the beginning of a journalistic experiment to find out, an experiment that—as I explain below—needs your assistance. (Also click here to read Slate editor Michael Kinsley's introduction to the project.)

Robert K. Graham was a eugenicist. He was a pessimist about humanity's future. And he was a can-do, self-made multimillionaire. Those qualities fused to inspire the Repository for Germinal Choice. Graham, who made his fortune by inventing shatterproof eyeglasses, feared mankind was in danger because natural selection had stopped working on human beings. He explained his views in a muscular 1971 book, The Future of Man. Over millenniums, nature's brutality had strengthened the human gene pool, allowing the strong and smart to reproduce, while killing the weak before they could. But once man mastered his natural environment, Graham argued, he jumped the evolutionary track. Better living conditions allowed "retrograde humans" to reproduce. In modern America, thanks to cradle-to-grave social welfare programs, these incompetents and imbeciles were swamping the intelligent. This dysgenic crisis would surely bring communism and the regression of mankind. All that could save us, Graham warned, was "intelligent selection": Our best specimens must have more children. Hence the Repository for Germinal Choice.

Graham intended the repository to be a prototype for genius sperm banks all over the country, producing "creative, intelligent people who otherwise might not be born." The children would be future intellectuals, scientists, and leaders and, Graham predicted in a giddy moment, "may stimulate [humanity's] ascent to a new level of being."

So, in the late 1970s, Graham persuaded several Nobel Prize winners in science—either three or five, depending on who's talking—to give him their sperm. Later he recruited dozens of younger scientists for his bank. Graham advertised for mothers in a Mensa magazine. Women had to be married to infertile men, well-educated, and financially comfortable. Soon he had a waiting list. He mailed out a catalog that advertised men such as "Mr. Fuschia," an Olympic gold medallist—"Tall, dark, handsome, bright, a successful businessman and author"; and "Mr. Grey-White … ruggedly handsome, outgoing, and positive, a university professor, expert marksman who enjoys the classics." (The repository revolutionized the sperm bank industry by—oddly for such an avowedly elitist institution—democratizing it: It took donor choice away from doctors and gave it to mothers. Instead of settling for a doctor's paltry offerings, mothers could be demanding customers, requiring as much [or more] accomplishment from a vial of sperm as from her flesh-and-blood husband.)

When the Los Angeles Times publicized the repository in 1980, a furor erupted. Eugenic ideas like Graham's had been mainstream in the United States for the first half of the 20th century. (Graham had even borrowed the idea of a Nobel sperm bank from a scheme proposed by respected Nobelist Hermann Muller in the '30s.) But by the time Graham opened the repository, eugenics had been utterly tarnished by Nazism. It was considered at best elitist, at worst racist and genocidal.

Graham was pilloried and mocked, accused of trying to create a "master race." Critics dubbed it the "Superbaby" program and compared it to Nazi eugenics practices. Ethicists denounced it as a cold, utilitarian approach toward children and an alarming step toward "designer babies." Only one of Graham's Nobel donors, transistor inventor William Shockley, would admit to having contributed sperm. That did not help matters. Shockley's views on race, genes, and intelligence had made him a national pariah, and his association with the repository confirmed suspicion that it was a dastardly racist plot. Demonstrators picketed Graham's Escondido estate. He hired security guards to protect the sperm.

The media's attention soon wandered, Graham stopped talking to the press, and the repository sank from sight. But the babies started arriving. The first birth was heralded in the National Enquirer in early 1982. Soon "genius babies" were being born at a rapid clip. By the time Graham died at age 90 in 1997, the repository claimed 229 offspring, all over the United States and in half a dozen countries. None of the children, despite the bank's reputation, were fathered by Nobel Prize winners: Early on Graham decided Nobelists were too old to be effective donors and relied on his younger scientists.

In the beginning Graham intended the repository to be an experiment and showpiece. He tacked pictures of the children to his office walls. He had parents agree to answer periodic surveys about their children. But he came to learn that his clients did not necessarily share his fascination with eugenic theories. When he mailed a survey in the early '90s, most of the parents ignored it.

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.

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.

We hope to publish your own accounts of your experiences, interviews with you, any other method that can convey your story. We will also maintain what we hope will be a vigorous discussion forum about the repository and the ethics of fertility science in " The Fray."

Please contact me at plotzd@slate.com with any questions or comments. And please feel free to e-mail this article to a friend, listserv, bbs, or Web site that might be interested.

The Seed Series

Part 10: The donors

Click here for Michael Kinsley's explanatory introduction to Seed.

Join the Discussion

5. Eugenics, Privatized





If you are interested in sharing any information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, send e-mail to plotzd@slate.com.

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