The Rise of the Smart Sperm Shopper

The Rise of the Smart Sperm Shopper

The Rise of the Smart Sperm Shopper

Exploring the "Nobel Prize sperm bank."
April 20 2001 8:30 PM

The Rise of the Smart Sperm Shopper

How the Repository for Germinal Choice accidentally revolutionized sperm banking.

Slate's"Seed" project is chronicling the history of the Repository for Germinal Choice, the "Nobel Prize sperm bank" founded by millionaire inventor Robert Graham. We have been searching for the 200-plus children conceived through the bank, their parents, and the men who donated the sperm for them. The left-hand column on this page displays links to the other 11 articles in the Seed series, including the  introduction explaining the project.

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By most of the standards Robert Graham set for his Repository for Germinal Choice, it failed. Graham's sperm bank did produce more than 200 children—much to their parents' delight—but Graham's grander ambitions crashed. He hoped the sperm bank would restore credibility to eugenics and galvanize Americans into saving their degrading gene pool. Instead, the press mocked and derided the bank as arrogant folly. He thought he would recruit many Nobel Prize winners to supply him with sperm, but most Nobelists laughed at him, and not a single baby was born to a Nobel father. Graham wanted the repository to be the prototype for hundreds of such genius sperm banks across the country. But today there is only one tiny "high-achiever" sperm bank, and it's struggling. (Click here to read about it and its founder, Paul Smith.) Graham intended to conduct a long-term scientific survey on the repository offspring, proving that these kids were indeed "superbabies." But parents refused to cooperate, and his study flopped.

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

Graham had one great success, but it was something he never intended. He helped revolutionize the sperm-bank business. Graham, an ultraconservative, inadvertently became a progressive sperm-bank reformer. Though he believed that elites should control the sorry masses, he somehow emerged as a great democratizer. He was an accidental father of consumer reproductive choice.

To appreciate how Graham improved the sperm donation business, you need to understand how horrible it used to be. The first reported case of donor insemination occurred in 1884, though it was considered so shocking that it wasn't reported publicly until 1909. Dr. William Pancoast, a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, found that a woman in his care couldn't get pregnant because of her husband's infertility. At the urging of some of his medical students and with the permission of the husband—but not the wife—Pancoast anesthetized her and impregnated her with semen taken from the "best-looking" student in the class. She never was told what was done to her or that her husband was not her child's father. This kind of subterfuge, made-up-on-the-spot, loosey-goosey standards and reliance on overwilling medical students would become the dismal defining qualities of donor insemination (DI) practice.

Such DI with fresh semen was practiced, though uncommonly, during the first half of the 20th century. After World War II, DI became more common, though no less secretive. Doctors supplied patients—always married women with infertile husbands—with fresh sperm gleaned from medical students, residents, and colleagues. (Many a doctor over 50 funded his medical-school socializing with sperm donation.) The process was haphazard, at best: The donors supplied only brief medical history and weren't tested for disease. Doctors ruled patients utterly. Women were given little or no choice about their donors. Anonymity was absolute: In most cases, no records were kept. (Some doctors didn't even bother finding a donor: They just used their own semen.)

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The furtiveness was understandable. Through the '50s and into the '60s, most states held that DI children were bastards and that impregnated women had committed adultery. In 1954, for example, Cook County in Illinois declared DI "contrary to public policy and good morals." The pope condemned DI as a sin.

The law turned in favor of sperm donation during the '60s. A 1968 California Supreme Court decision confirmed that the social father of a DI child indeed assumed all paternal rights. The 1973 Uniform Parentage Act, adopted by every state, established this principle nationwide.

At the same time, sperm banking emerged as an alternative to insemination with fresh sperm. New freezing techniques allowed semen to be stored for months in liquid nitrogen "cryobanks." Sperm banking remained a small business, though. When Robert Graham decided to open his cryo-repository in the late '70s, he found very few competitors, notably the California Cryobank in Los Angeles.

Dr. Cappy Rothman

Dr. Cappy Rothman, co-founder of the California Cryobank and a pioneer in male infertility research, knew Graham and viewed his Nobel sperm bank as a blight on the profession. "When he brought in William Shockley as a donor, that was the worst blow for sperm banking," says Rothman. "And his eugenics, his perception of where the human race should go, they were terrible."

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Yet Graham's repository catalyzed the field. Even Dr. Charles Sims, the other co-founder of the California Cryobank, conceded in a 1983 interview that the repository "changed the face of sperm banking forever."

Graham brought rigor to an often-casual trade. Since Graham intended to supply women only with la crème de la crème, as it were, of sperm, he demanded stringent testing and examination. His donors endured physicals and endless blood tests. They completed massive medical family histories. Any serious illness disqualified them.

And though Graham certainly had an authoritarian streak, he ended up being a pioneer of consumer choice. Other sperm banks told clients no more about donors than their eye color, hair color, and blood type. Graham offered a catalog filled with minibiographies: He detailed professions, athletic skills, personality, musical gifts. Graham's customers, not their doctors, chose their own perfect match, based on criteria that mattered to them. Graham also gave his clients charge over their own insemination. Other sperm banks delivered their product only to physicians, who would administer it. Graham's patients could order sperm directly and inseminate themselves at home. "I had tried with a doctor and it had turned me off to the whole thing. So it was very important that my husband and I could do it ourselves. It made it a very mystical experience," says Adrienne Ramm, the mother of three repository kids.

Essentially by accident, Graham seized control of DI from doctors and handed it to clients. Other sperm banks, which had also begun to tune into client desires, followed his lead. This consumer revolution was accelerated by the advent of AIDS in the early '80s. AIDS killed the market for fresh semen, as women demanded sperm from HIV-free men. Sperm banks began screening donors for HIV, freezing their sperm for six months, screening the donors again, and only then using the samples.

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Cryobanks became ever more sensitive to consumer anxiety about health and donor achievement. Today the California Cryobank—probably the world's premier sperm bank—tests for a dozen genetic disorders and for almost as many infectious diseases. Donors must complete a 38-page, three-generation medical history, and submit to months of blood testing. The cryobank accepts only college graduates or students enrolled in a four-year program. (The cryobank's offices are in Westwood, Palo Alto, and Cambridge, Mass., meaning that most of its donors hail from USC, UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT.) And donors must stand at least 5 feet 9 inches tall. By the time it weeds out the sickly, the short, and the dim, the California Cryobank accepts only 3 percent to 5 percent of applicants.

The cryobank barrages customers with choices. A recent catalog listed more than 170 men of every race, national origin, and appearance. A client can buy the entire long medical history (written in the donor's own hand, so the client can judge handwriting). Some donors make audiotapes that clients listen to.

Rothman insists there is a difference between his standards and Graham's. Graham, he says, was telling women they must choose geniuses. He says he is simply responding to market demand. The California Cryobank supplies tall collegians because that is what women want. (The ideal donor, he says: 6 feet tall, college degree, brown eyes, blond hair, and dimples.) "If our customers wanted high-school dropouts, we would give them high-school dropouts," Rothman has said.

This attention to consumer choice has boosted the sperm-bank industry. Banks now cater eagerly to the lesbians and single women who were rejected by old-school doctors (and by Graham). Rothman estimates that 40 percent of his clients are single women or lesbians. In 1987, the last year for which there is data (why no data? Keep reading), more than 30,000 babies were born to women who used anonymous donors. The number has almost certainly soared since then, as sperm banks have massively proliferated.

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The consumer revolution in sperm banking has a dark side. It commodifies pregnancy. Sperm is now treated as a product, and customers (not "patients") demand the same quality assurances that they would for a toaster. This drains some of the mystery out of getting pregnant and also introduces a dangerous element of expectation. If sperm is like a toaster, then customers may expect their money back or a trade-in if a baby doesn't live up to billing. Banks have been sued by parents of kids who suffer from debilitating illnesses.

The other ugliness about consumer-oriented sperm banking—and consumer-oriented reproductive science in general—is that it is a "cowboy industry," as Alexander Capron, University Professor of Law and Medicine at USC, puts it. Virtually no rules govern sperm banking. The Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly planned and then failed to issue sperm-bank regs. Individual states regulate but very halfheartedly. "In most places, there is nothing to prevent you from setting up Robert Graham's Sperm Bank and Delicatessen," says Capron. (Indeed, Robert Graham had no medical training at all, yet ran a sperm bank for two decades. Reproductive medicine is constantly being embarrassed by unregulated charlatans: What other branch of medicine could harbor a doctor like Cecil Jacobson, the fertility specialist who impregnated more than 70 women with his own semen while promising them anonymous donors?)

The chaos of sperm banking means it answers largely to the whims of desperate customers and not to high medical or ethical standards. Fewer than a dozen of the several hundred sperm banks in the United States have bothered to meet the accreditation standards of the American Association of Tissue Banks. (The California Cryobank is accredited.) There are no standard policies about how many kids a donor may father, what tests should be performed on donors or their semen, or what records—if any—should be kept so that donors are not utterly lost. Some sperm banks keep elaborate records. Some seem to keep none. No sperm bank trade association exists, so no one even knows how many banks there are. And no one has the faintest idea how many sperm bank kids are born every year. The only reason the 1987 figure of 30,000 exists is that the federal government performed a onetime census as part of an effort to push the industry into behaving itself. Click here to read an interesting theory about why politics has made sperm banking so disorderly.

The anarchy is particularly alarming around the issue of donor identification. In the old days, DI families hid their "shame" from the children, relatives, family members. But today's smart sperm shoppers have a different view. More and more DI parents are telling their kids of their origins (this is because more DI parents are single or lesbians, hence paternal anxiety is not a question.) Thanks in part to Graham, DI parents no longer see themselves as embarrassed beneficiaries of some doctor's largesse. They view themselves as customers, and they believe they have a right to know everything about the product they bought. The adoption-rights movement, which has cracked open long-sealed adoption records, is emboldening sperm bank parents and their kids. A similar rebellion is brewing among them to open the sperm files and pierce the curtain of anonymity.

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Sweden and New Zealand, among other countries, have established national donor registries that allow kids to learn about their biological fathers. A Canadian group is pushing for a donor registry up north. The Web (as well as my e-mail inbox) is overflowing with sperm-bank kids—many from the bad old days of med student donations—searching for donor dads. Sperm banks are responding to the pressure: Several American banks now have openness options, in which children can contact their donor when they reach age 18.

But children from the Repository for Germinal Choice have no such redress. Though Graham became an unlikely advocate for consumer rights, he did not provision for his customers in death. His will left no money to continue the repository and no instructions on preserving its records. Since the bank closed in 1999, the records seem to have vanished. No one I have talked to even knows where they are. Parents and donors certainly have no access to them. And though some donors and parents want to find each other, Graham's widow and the repository's former staff won't make any effort to help them. That is why so many searching parents and donors have contacted Slate. The repository can't help them with this last, important consumer request, but perhaps the Web can.

If you have a connection to the Repository for Germinal Choice—whether as a child, parent, donor, or employee—and you would like to share your story anonymously, please contact me by e-mail at plotzd@slate.comor by phone at (202) 862-4889.

The Seed Series

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Part 10: The donors

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

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5. Eugenics, Privatized


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