Take a look at the back page advertisements in any college newspaper. Dotted among the classified ads, there will invariably be an invitation or two to male undergraduates to sell their sperm. It’s an easy and hardly arduous way to make money, and pretty speedy too. Masturbate, ejaculate, hand over the results, and you’re on your way with a little money in your pocket.
Go online and you’ll find many sperm banks seeking donors as well as selling their product. Sperm banks are now part of the reproductive landscape, with Denmark and the USA as the leading providers. Sperm from those with sought-after talents or other desirable characteristics is more expensive, and needless to say the gap between the cost of donating and the cost of accessing a donation is vast. On average, donors are paid $35-$50 per specimen in the US, and about £35 in the UK. The buyer, however, is looking (and that’s just for the product) at around $400 at the low end, rising to about $1,000; in Europe you’re looking at anything from €70 to €750, depending on whether the donor remains anonymous. Sperm from an identified donor costs a lot more than anonymous sperm, and one donor’s donation can potentially service multiple customers. In Denmark, the largest sperm market, the industry turned over 1 billion Danish krone ($152m) in 2012 alone, and one recent report anticipated that by 2025, the global sperm bank market will be valued at US$4.96 billion. Running a sperm bank is clearly a profitable venture, and make no mistake, this is a for-profit industry.
The modern sperm bank emerged in the 1980s, but artificial insemination (or as it was known in the inter-war period, eutelegenesis, a fantastically science fiction-y name) certainly isn’t new. Artificial insemination by homologous donor, which used the sperm of a woman’s partner, had been tried in the mid-nineteenth century, but the horrific slaughter of young men in World War I got people thinking about the possibility of insemination by donor. In his 1935 book Out of the Night, geneticist Herman J. Muller (who would go on to win a Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1946) proposed active intervention in reproduction “to rear selectively–or even to multiply–those embryo which have received a superior heredity.” The idea was one among many in the then popular science of eugenics which looked to improve the human stock. Muller argued that actively selecting from the “best” in the population would raise the level of physical and intellectual fitness in the population. His plan sputtered at the time but as reproductive technologies advanced, Muller returned to the idea in the early 1960s.
Spurred by the first successful freezing of sperm shortly after World War II, Muller teamed up with a wealthy Californian eyeglass lens manufacture, Robert Graham, who bankrolled the venture. Muller and Graham fell out, but after Muller’s death Graham founded what he called the Repository for Germinal Choice in 1971. It was a highly exclusive venture, collecting and freezing only the sperm of Nobel Laureates, and it closed its doors in 1999. It wasn’t too long, however, before entrepreneurs realized there was money to be made in this venture. Sperm banks have since proliferated. Sperm from those with sought-after talents or other desirable characteristics remains the most desirable and therefore more expensive, with anonymous sperm (not legal in some countries) being the cheapest. One of the main reasons the US and Denmark lead the field is because both these countries allow anonymous donorship.
Muller and Graham, and many others, dreamed of perfecting not just a science, but the human race. But what does that look like on the ground? What traits do people think they’re buying? People dream of parenting the next great athlete or musical super-star, just as Muller and Graham fantasized that the offspring from their venture would grow up to win Nobel Prizes. Even if this were possible (and geneticists’ warnings that it’s not fall mostly on deaf ears), the commercialization of baby-making allows the affluent to exercise a choice unavailable to the vast majority. They may end up disappointed when their child fails to become the next Stephen Curry, but the illusion of choice is powerful. Artificial insemination is without doubt a boon to those who can’t conceive and to same-sex couples, but there are ethical issues that remain unresolved, and as long as artificial insemination is driven largely by profit, nothing will change.
Featured image credit: sperm egg fertilization sex cell by TBIT. Public domain via Pixabay.