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PROCREATIVE COMPOUNDS: POPULAR EUGENICS, ARTIFICIAL INSEMINATION AND THE RISE OF THE AMERICN SPERM BANKING INDUSTRY

Byline: Daniels, Cynthia R; Golden, Janet Volume: 38 Number: 1 ISSN: 00224529 Publication Date: 10-01-2004 Page: 5 Type: Periodical
Language: English

A contemporary visitor to one of the largest sperm banks in the United States would find a dazzling array of seminal products available for purchase. The storage room of New England Cryogenics-in "home run" distance from Boston's Fenway Park-contains more than 165,000 vials of sperm representing the best that American men have to offer. Consumers can peruse donor catalogs listing the race, ethnicity, height, weight, hair color, hair texture, skin tone, facial structure, IQ, hobbies, talents, and interests of the men whose sperm is for sale. The semen that is selected can then, be purchased for about $165.00 per "straw" with additional charges for shipping and handling. In the U.S., tens of thousands of children are conceived each year through artificial insemination with semen purchased from sperm banks.2

Both sperm donors and their "donations" are subjected to stringent forms of testing and screening to insure not only their health, but also the marketability of the product they produce. At most sperm banks, donors may be rejected if they are too young (under 21) or too old (over 35); if they are too short (under 5'8") or too tall (over 6'2"); if they weigh too little or too much. They may be rejected if they are adopted or have parents who are adopted because of an inability to obtain a complete genetic and family history. Other reasons for exclusion include having had sex with another male, with a woman who has had sex with a bisexual male, or with more than a maximum number of sexual partners. A family history of as many of one hundred different diseases or physical disorders can likewise rule out potential donors.3 Once accepted as a donor, a man can be rejected if he fails one of the monthly blood and urine tests administered to check for drug use, HIV, and a range of other infectious diseases. As one newspaper article noted "being accepted as a sperm donor can be as difficult as entering Harvard." The data suggest otherwise. It is easier to get into Harvard.

Once past the battery of tests, donors are numbered and categorized by race and ethnic origin. Donors at the largest and most successful sperm bank in the world, California Cryobank, are "hand printed." A biometric identification device records a three-dimensional measurement of the donor's hand which is used to confirm the identity of the donor for future visits, or as Cryobank puts it, "to ensure that the man standing at the donor desk really is donor #500." Samples in vials are then both numbered and color-coded by racial categories: predictably, white caps for Caucasian; black for African-American; yellow for Asian, red for "all others."5 Sperm banks then sell the seminal product through catalogs which feature glossy photos of virile men. In short, in contemporary society, sperm is a commodity, alienated from its producer and yet sold as the embodiment of that producer's particular traits.

A prescient description of sperm banks appeared in a 1938, tongue-in-cheek article in American Mercury, in which the author forecast "staggering" social possibilities should artificial insemination ever become widely adopted. He envisioned a land "stocked with an assortment of bottled procreative compounds available to women on demand," thus making it possible for "a few feminists or Lucy Stoners [to] resort to the scientific substitutes out of pure spite, or as a declaration of biological independence." The development of sperm cryobanking into a multi-million dollar industry in the United States over the past twentyfive years suggests the author's forecast was at least partially correct. Purchasers of "procreative compounds" can select sperm that comes from donors who match partners or from those who embody idealized versions of men-taller, handsomer, smarter than the average. Vials of sperm selected by purchasers, like sperm donors once selected by doctors contain, figuratively, the cultural ranking of particular traits. Selections are made, in part, on the basis of nonheritable characteristics and so reveal prevailing social hierarchies and the operation of what we call populist market eugenics. We define this as the belief that certain human traits can be "purchased" through the careful selection of sperm. We note that the traits which appear to be most in demand in the contemporary sperm banking industry reflect not just the desires of consumers to have offspring who physically resemble them, but to have offspring who will be at the top of prevailing social hierarchies. Implicitly, if not explicitly, populist market eugenics rests on the simple faith that such hierarchies are rooted in genetically transmitted material.7

This article traces the role of populist eugenics in shaping artificial insemination with donor sperm (AID) from doctor-dominated AID practiced from the 1920s through the 1960s through the rise of the modern cryobanking industry which supported a consumer-dominated AID in the late twentieth century. It begins by examining the development of AID and the eugenic interests it provoked and then turns to the rise of the modern sperm bank, exploring the growth of the industry and the ways in which it markets the "traits" of donors, playing to popular notions of heritability that have no scientific standing. Scholars have discussed eugenics as a social movement resting on the unproven scientific claim that, by controlling the breeding of those deemed unfit or genetically defective and encouraging the breeding of the fit, the quality of the population could be improved. Much of the research has focused on negative eugenics through its effects on such things as the segregation of the "feebleminded" in institutions, passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted the admission of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and the enactment of state laws preventing the unfit (those deemed insane, idiotic, and epileptic for example) from marrying and/or mandating their sterilization.8 Positive eugenics too has received scholarly attention, with examination of particular attempts to educate people about Mendelian laws of inheritance through such things as "Fitter Families" and "Better Babies" contests at state fairs in the 1920s and 30s.9 During these events, contestants submitted eugenic histories, underwent medical examinations and took an IQ test-a process that foreshadowed the selection of sperm donors.

A subsequent form of popular eugenics evolved with the development of AID through the 1920s, 30s and 40s as individual doctors and individual couples employed eugenic theories to create families. For physicians, eugenics often centered on creating smarter babies through the selection of intellectually accomplished donors who were said to be making a contribution to the nation's gene pool. In the early twentieth century, it was noted that middle- and upperclass families were having far fewer children than their lower-class counterparts. By serving as sperm donors, professional men were thought to be increasing the proportion of genetically well-endowed individuals within the population. For families, the eugenic impulse was often tempered by the imperative to "match" the looks of the donor and father but, wherever possible, to produce offspring smarter and better looking than nature might have allowed. In examining the history of AID in the twentieth century, we can better understand how populist eugenics operated in the medical world and in private homes. Rather than understanding eugenics as a political movement led by those with a conservative agenda or a misguided faith in the power of ...

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