Beginning In January 1990, California law will require that guidelines be established for the testing of sperm-bank donations for the virus that causes AIDS. While specific donor and recipient screening methods, semen-analysis techniques, and commercial and legal issues have yet to be addressed, this law is perhaps the first step towards pulling in the reins on a highly lucrative, largely unregulated industry.
The San Diego branch of Santa Ana-based Fertility Center of California, Incorporated (listed in the Yellow Pages as Sperm Sank, Incorporated), represents one end of the sperm bank spectrum. It is a small suite of offices near the Alvarado Medical Center. A sign on the reception area wall reads, “No Smoking. Sperm Hibernating." This easy, humorous attitude carries throughout the operation; among themselves, Fertility Center employees call the restroom where donors coax out their samples the “ masturbatorium.’’
The restroom is lit by fluorescent tubes. There is a toilet and sink, an armchair. A poster of a woman holding a glass of champagne, leaning on Rolls Royce (caption: “Poverty Sucks”), and a table neatly stacked with issues of Playboy and Penthouse are the room’s only concessions to popular ideas of eroticism. “We wouldn't carry Jugs or anything that crude!’’ laughs employee Joanne Wood. Donors knock at a back door of the clinic's offices “whenever they’re in the neighborhood or whenever it fits into their schedule” and proceed — a little sheepishly, Joanne says — down the hall to the room.
Fertility Center advertises for donors on the campuses of SDSU and UCSD and receives about 100 calls a week from prospects. A fair share of these are prank calls. “Especially at the beginning of the school year. We get calls from fraternities who want to come in as a group, from guys who just want to know how samples are collected, if I’ll help, et cetera. They expect a red-light district. They ask if there's a machine!’’ Serious inquirers (about 60 a week) are invited in for a preliminary interview. Each fills out a questionnaire and is asked to produce a sample.
The questionnaire asks about a prospect’s health history, family background, interests, occupation, grade point average, and sexual activity. This is one business in which having fathered a child before graduating from college is a point in a prospect’s favor. No documentation of the information a donor gives is required. Joanne Wood says that “once you get to know them, you could tell if they weren’t being honest. But there really isn’t a reason for them to lie about anything.’’ Next, potential donors are given a blood test, screened by a geneticist and a urologist, and tested for infectious diseases. If accepted, donors receive $35 per viable sample. They are encouraged to produce two samples a week for as long as one year.
The laboratory at Fertility Center is a cozy, kitchen-like room. Here, samples are treated with a medium of egg yolk, glycerine, and antibiotics. Over a three-week period, they are frozen, tested and retested for motility, and analyzed for the AIDS virus and a range of genetically inherited diseases. Dinah Ashmead sits hunched over a microscope, squinting at a slide of semen. “You want to look for a high level of activity and few abnormalities,” Ashmead says. “You want to ask, are the sperm really active, or are they just sort of flipflopping around like dying fish?” Having been graded on a scale of 1 to 4, the samples are quarantined for six months. They are retested for the AIDS virus three times during that period.
The samples are kept in Thermos-type containers of liquid nitrogen in a back room. A wall chart there lists containers that have been shipped out; while Fertility Center has a room for insemination procedure, it allows the procedure to be accomplished elsewhere, provided that a medical doctor supervises. Fertility Center also stores sperm for pre-vasectomy and pre-chemotherapy patients, among others. No one knows how long the sperm will last; some studies have suggested a half-life of 1000 years, but the oldest sperm yet to produce a pregnancy were 15 years old.
Most of Fertility Center’s recipients are referred by specialists and local clinics, such as Womancare. The center does not require that recipients be married; it has provided services for lesbian couples on several occasions. Recipients are given a price list (each vial of semen costs $50) and a “donor catalogue”: a computer printout listing donor code numbers, blood type, physical characteristics, race and ethnic origin, occupation, and interests —"Rugby/Piano,” for example. Most clients' primary requisite is that the donor physically resemble their partners. Secondly, they are concerned that the donor be a "proven stud,” in the words of Joanne Wood. There is, of course, no guarantee that a child will result from the insemination. There is, further, no guarantee as to what characteristics of the biological father will be passed on to the child. "The human genome is a long way from being decoded," Wood remarks. "And 'nature versus nurture' is still a raging debate.”
For an extra fee, however, clients can pre-select the sex of their prospective children. Y-chromosome-bearing sperm (which produce males) can be stained, allowing those or the X-chromosome-bearing sperm to be fished out of the mix. Another technique involves filtering sperm through increasingly thicker concentrations of human serum albumin. Depending on how the procedure is performed, this process results in a great number of X- or Y-bearing sperm.
"We follow people through the whole process here,” says Joanne Wood. "Currently, 30 women are pregnant by Fertility Center donors. Some clients send photos of the babies or come back to show them to us. One woman was so open about it that she says she regrets it now. She’s constantly being reminded. Others are really secretive about it. One couple even left the doctor who referred them in order to cover their tracks. It’s a never-ending soap opera.”
In 1970 Robert Klark Graham (inventor of the shatterproof plastic lenses now found in most of the world’s eyeglasses) wrote a book entitled The Future of Man. In it he argues that revolutionary movements develop when inferior stock, being more fertile, outnumbers the superior ruling classes and overwhelms them. He cites the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions as examples. Moreover, Mr. Graham goes on, "they plan it here [America] too.”
A follower of eugenist Hermann Muller, Graham believes that the human race must direct its own evolution through the continuance of "superior” genetic lines. To this end, he established the Foundation for the Advancement of Man, which supports a nonprofit sperm bank, the Repository for Germinal Choice, located in Escondido.
Like Fertility Center, the repository’s facilities are small. On the walls of the main office are massive posters of beaming, ivory skinned babies. Jeannie Schneider, the nurse consultant and one of only two office employees, says there is no significance to the fact that all the babies on the walls are white. "We just don’t have time to have someone out searching specifically for black donors.” Schneider says they did acquire a "temporary black donor” at one time. Fertility Center’s donor catalogue shows African, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Mexican, and Chinese donors.
Dubbed the "Nobel Prize Sperm Bank” by journalists in 1980, the repository no longer stocks the sperm of any Nobelists. It does not advertise for donors. Robert Graham selects prospects from among scientific high-achievers — doctors, researchers. "Today, we find our most brilliant and productive citizens having few, if any, children,” reads a brochure written for the repository, "while people of lesser abilities and health can have their large families subsidized through government welfare.... Artificial Insemination could drastically reduce health care costs, crime, and government welfare programs.”
A Nobel Prize-winning engineer, William Shockley, was one of the repository’s first donors and one of the few men to admit publicly to having been a donor. Shockley, interestingly, is a firm believer that "whites are genetically superior to blacks.”
”I don’t really understand Graham’s ideas,” says Schneider, dismissively. She does admit, however, that the repository exists to further Graham’s ideas. ”I think he wanted to save the great genes’ of our time. He was interested in cryopreservation and had a fascination for intelligence. He found the most intelligent people weren’t having kids. There’s a lot of our recipients who'd agree. But we certainly are not a racist organization.”
"There are people who accused Graham of being like Adolf Hitler!” adds office manager Dora Vaux, Jeannie Schneider's mother. "Absolutely not true. That was cooked up by a lot of journalists with nothing better to do.”
It is part of Dora Vaux’s job now to correspond with prospective donors. "Because I’m older, you see. Less threatening than someone of your age.” Currently, she says, the repository has 11 regular donors. At any given time, another 3 donors are being actively sought. Donors are medically screened and their backgrounds "carefully researched." Once accepted into the program, Graham himself writes up a donor’s catalogue listing. Donors receive no compensation. "They do it for philanthropic reasons. People say blood is the gift of life. What the heck is sperm? It’s the gift of life, right? A new life! To a couple who are suffering from infertility. So to me, it doesn't seem like I have to explain anything! Why do you think they’d want to do it?" Schneider contends that the repository’s donors are always intelligent, have a lot of integrity, and "tend to be above the average Individual."
Prospective recipients are screened by the repository’s board of directors. Graham, now in his 80s, still sits on the board. His wife, Dr. Marta Everton, acts as medical advisor, and his son, a lawyer, provides legal counsel. Recipients must be married, of "above-average" intelligence, under 38 years old, and able to "comfortably support" a child. Jeannie Schneider says recipients are also required to submit a physician’s statement attesting to their health, emotional stability, and character. "We’re not playing God here," says Schneider, "but we do have a responsibility."
That responsibility, however, does not extend to documenting the information recipients provide about their income, family histories, or education. "We can tell right off if they have had an education," says Dora Vaux. According to Jeannie Schneider, sources would be checked if there were any suspicion of a client's honesty.
"Maybe this is a real broad statement to make," Schneider continues, "but when I meet someone like you, for example, I have a pretty good idea you’re not waiting in the welfare lines when you leave here, right? Okay. You can tell an awful lot from an interview; and you can also tell from a written application, how well they are able to fill it out, if they’re bright enough. I would say there’s a definite correlation between intelligence, integrity, and welfare recipients."
The repository came under fire when its first baby was born to an Arizona woman who was discovered to be a convicted child abuser. "There is a risk factor," Jeannie Schneider says. "There's always going to be flaws In a system, you know."
A former repository employee, Paul Smith, was one such flaw. In 1983, he told Mother Jones magazine that if clients wanted "defective" sperm and babies, they should "go to Oakland." The Oakland Feminist Women’s Health Center slapped Robert Graham with a $3 million libel suit. Smith began his own "genius" sperm bank in San Francisco in 1984.
While the Repository for Germinal Choice provides its services "for free," recipients are now encouraged to make a $500 to $1000 contribution. They must pay a $50 processing and shipping fee (unlike Fertility Center, recipients may inseminate "in the privacy of their own homes") and leave a $200 deposit on the liquid nitrogen container, a deposit that depreciates by $25 a month. In order to become pregnant as quickly as possible, recipients are also encouraged to rent an ovulation predictor for $35 a month. "It used to take an average of six cycles for a woman to conceive," Jeannie Schneider explains. "Now it’s down to an average of three."
But again, no guarantees are given that a baby will result from insemination attempts. Recipients are given one year, and as many vials of semen as are necessary, to try. The “quality” of any resulting baby is not assured, either; but repository literature states that "according to the best ‘guesstimates’ of genetic scientists, genetics accounts for 30 to 70 percent of intellect." Repository literature also cites studies indicating that criminality is an inherited trait. “Everything is hereditary!" Schneider insists. "Except religion," says Vaux.
On November 29, the repository’s 101st baby was born.