The Genius Factory
My short, scary career as a sperm donor.
In this excerpt from The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, a new book based on a Slate project, David Plotz recounts his own awkward attempt to become a sperm donor.
After talking to donors from the Nobel sperm bank, I remained puzzled about why they had bothered with such a peculiar and burdensome enterprise. That's when I realized that I needed to donate sperm, too. Not because I wanted to, quite the contrary. I already had two children, which seemed more than enough on most days. My lack of desire to donate is why I felt obliged to do it. No matter how often donors explained their rationale to me, sperm donation befuddled me. Why had the repository donors subjected themselves to such inconvenience and embarrassment? Why had they been willing to father children—dozens in some cases—that they could never know? What was donating like? I had to find out for myself.
I dutifully informed my wife about my plan. "No way," Hanna said. I argued that it was all in the name of research. She was unimpressed. I promised that I would stop the sperm bank before it could sell my sperm. She didn't believe the bank would make such a deal. I swore that there was no chance they would use my sperm. I begged, which was not a pretty sight. She relented.
These days, sperm banks recruit customers and donors through the Internet, so I cruised the Web and found an application for Fairfax Cryobank, located in Washington, D.C.'s, Virginia suburbs. Fairfax Cryobank is to sperm banking what Citigroup is to real banking. It has branches in four states and Canada. The sperm bank itself is only one small division of a full-service fertility business, the Genetics & IVF Institute.
I completed Fairfax's online application in a couple of minutes—it asked for little more than my name and address. A week later, the mailman delivered a discreet brown envelope with no name on the return address. Sperm banks, like pornographers, keep everything on the down-low. Bank staffers dislike leaving phone messages, but if they must, the message is almost incomprehensibly vague: "This is Mary, from Fairfax. We'd like to talk to you about your recent inquiry. Please call us at ...")
The brown package from Fairfax contained an 18-page application. I trudged through the physical data: age, hair color, height, weight, blood type. I dragged my way through the biographical section: educational history, profession, musical talent ("None," I wrote proudly), athletic abilities, hobbies. Then Ibored through the medical questionnaire: alcohol use, tobacco use,drug use, tattooing history, how well I sleep, how well I eat, whatmedicines I take and why, what bones I have broken, whether I exchangesex for money, whether I had used intranasal cocaine in thepreceding 12 months. I listed three generations of familial mentalillness and felt my own ticker skip a beat when I wrote that all my male ancestors on both sides of the family had died young of heart disease. I declared that I wasn't a carrier of Gaucher disease, Fanconi anemia, Niemann-Pick disease, Canavan disease, or thalassemia, although I had not the faintest idea what those illnesses were. I checked off whether I suffered from any of an endless roster of symptoms—hoarseness, warts, blood in stool, goiter, tingling, dizziness, fainting, convulsions, seizures, fits, shaking, tremor, numbness. By the time I was done, I was suffering from several of them. I was asked 16 ways to Sunday if I inject drugs or have sex with other men. I agreed to submit to an HIV test. Finally, I reached Page 18, which was the scariest of all: "I agree that I release all rights, privileges, and disposition of my semen specimens to Fairfax Cryobank." Hanna is going to kill me, I thought, and then I signed it.
According to the application, if my written application made the cut, I would be invited for an interview, where I would "produce" a semen sample for analysis. If that were satisfactory, I would return for more semen analyses and a physical. Only if I passed those would I qualify as a donor.
I mailed my application to Fairfax and waited. And waited. And waited. After two months, I was miffed. How dare they ignore my semen? That semen had produced two healthy children! That semen had run a marathon! Then my irritation turned to worry: Did Fairfax know something I didn't about my health? Was my future that bleak? Was all that heart disease really so bad? Suddenly I found myself desperate to be chosen.
I had just applied to a bank in New York when I received an e-mail from "Amanda," who identified herself as Fairfax's laboratories coordinator. She invited me for an interview. She noted, oh so casually, that I would have to furnish a sample on the premises.
The following Monday, I made my way to the Fairfax Cryobank office, situated beyond the Washington Beltway in The Land of Wretched Office Parks, in the dreariest of all office developments. The building's blandness may be intentional: A sperm bank doesn't want to draw attention to itself or its visitors.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Photograph of sperm courtesy California Cryobank. Photograph of sperm on the Slate home page courtesy Toronto Star/Zuma Press.Still from Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask on the Slate home page © courtesy Everett Collection/Everett Collection.