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Is Elite Sperm a Fraud?

More and more sperm banks are promising rigorous screening methods for donors. But in a largely-unregulated industry, is there any such thing as elite sperm?

When Alison and her partner decided they wanted to have a child via in vitro fertilization — a process by which eggs are fertilized by sperm outside of the body and then transferred to the uterus — the women knew they would have to opt for the surreal experience of online sperm shopping. A popular donor recipient hub, DonorSiblingRegistry.com, recommended the Sperm Bank of California, a non-profit organization. While their reputation was solid, Alison found their selection lacking. Omitting any history of alcoholism, which runs on both sides of the couple’s family, left surprisingly few choices.

California Cryobank was another story. In addition to being proximally convenient to Alison in Los Angeles, the business is practically the Match.com of sperm, offering an almost overwhelming array of options and a guarantee that every donor has been filtered through a demanding screening process that includes a criminal background check, genetic testing, and psychological profiling. They insist their acceptance rate for donor applicants is less than one percent. There’s a six times greater chance of being admitted into Harvard.

For Alison, who paid $300 to see the full profiles of potential donors, it was like having a concierge service for semen.

“I could see childhood pictures of donors,” she says. “You can find out their grandparents’ eye color. Their SAT scores.” In some cases, she could hear a recording of the donor’s voice. In the absence of meeting her child’s future biological father, it was both an assurance and a customization that flirts with eugenics. A child could be programmed as much as it could be conceived.

As Alison scanned, the thing that nagged her was how many unknowns there were. The stories online that cautioned how sperm banks, even ones offering elite sperm, were largely unregulated by governing bodies. That genetic testing, no matter how involved, could never possibly guarantee a child will be spared chronic conditions; and that at least one bank, Georgia-based Xytex, came up repeatedly as a target for lawsuits when it was discovered one donor cleared for distribution was actually a schizophrenic with a criminal history. He fathered at least 36 children.

For all of the assurances, sperm banks are not medical providers, and no physician-patient relationship is implied. The one-percenters, for all of their genetic desirability and charming dispositions, are still partly a subjective choice. “That,” Alison says, “scared the crap out of me.” 

***

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Once condemned morally and ethically as a kind of lab-based adultery, sperm banks have risen in esteem from the lurid and experimental attempts of the early 20th century. Artificial insemination is projected to be a $2.63 billion dollar market by 2025, due in no small part to the premium services offered by major cryobanks at premium prices. Where sperm donation was previously an anonymous process facilitated by a physician and where infertile couples had little say, recipients can now browse a selection of the best swimmers in the pool.

Scott Brown, the director of client experiences and communications at California Cryobank, can rattle off a gauntlet of testing protocol that sounds like the hiring process at the CIA. Recruits are solicited via internet advertising, must be at least 19 and no older than 39, and have either graduated or are attending college. “Education, height, body-mass index, family medical history reviews, psychological assessment, STD testing, extended genetic testing, criminal background check,” he says of the hurdles. “Then a donor has to get past counselors.”

And more. Personal essays. The motility and morphology of the sperm sample itself. Concentration and volume. At any point along the process, potential donors can be disqualified. Maybe the genetic testing has revealed a condition out of the 281 screened for, like cystic fibrosis. Maybe the psych testing—carried out through a Personality Assessment Inventory questionnaire—reveals unwelcome tendencies. Maybe their answers are inconsistent. Maybe they have no good answer for what they’ll do when the recipient or their offspring comes looking for them one day, an increasing possibility as more banks switch to an open-donor policy of allowing contact information to be released when a child turns 18.

Or maybe the guy is just a jerk. “That’s not something we’d want to deal with on day-to-day basis,” Brown says.

If the donor is deemed eligible, his sperm is quarantined for six months and re-tested to make sure no disease or other red flag is missed.  A single vial of highly scrutinized sperm runs from $795 to $995, not including whatever costs were incurred for the recipient to browse their inventory. Single mothers, Brown says, are often drawn to donors who appear to physically resemble them. Sometimes it’s education. Sometimes they just want the tallest man they can find.

“For the world’s largest cryobanks, the acceptance rate is basically on par with one in 100,” says Judith Daar, a Clinical Professor of Medicine at University of California Irvine School of Medicine and a Visiting Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law. “They’re looking for characteristics that recipients are looking for, like men over five-feet, nine-inches.”

In other words, banks have become exclusive clubs because recipients want the best of the best. Why not give their child every possible chance of good genetic fortune? And what better way for a bank to signal that complicity than by turning away most potential donors and offering exacting details on the remainder?

“The more information available, the more autonomy a patient can exercise,” Daar says.

A sperm donor with a 2400 SAT score and the ability to dunk a basketball is more appealing to mothers than someone with eczema and a family history of mental illness. While genetic testing can put genotypes in a specific category, certain subjective traits are open to interpretation. While California Cryobank inquires about the medical history of parents, they don’t have access to those records. Nor can psychological assessment profiles provide definitive proof of mental stability. In underlining exclusivity, are infertile consumers growing convinced they have more control over their child’s future than is even possible?

***

In 1980, a former eyeglass entrepreneur named Robert K. Graham founded the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank with a mission statement. Donors were universally white, with many purported to be Nobel Prize laureates, elite athletes, and—at the very least—geniuses. Employees strolled college campuses looking for cooperative professors and students, loading samples in their liquid nitrogen-equipped cars.

Oddly, no women ever selected the famed “Nobel sperm” on offering, since donors were typically older and thus less attractive from a sample-quality standpoint. The hundreds of offspring that resulted from this atypical elitism — the Repository closed in 1999 following Graham’s death — are largely ordinary. “Genius sperm” does not appear to have given any a leg-up in society, in academia, or in happiness, though some have reported a vague feeling of being underachievers. Sperm quality is undoubtedly important, but at a certain point, diluting the selection to the cream of the crop may offer only diminishing returns.

“The melding of gametes [reproductive cells] is still a mysterious process we don’t fully understand,” Daar says. “There’s equal risk when you compare births by donor versus natural births.”

Just as there’s no guarantee screened sperm will result in a brilliant, fit, wonderful human, it’s also impossible to consider genetic testing can eliminate all potential for disease. Donor recipients are not required to report genetic illnesses identified in children, meaning compromised sperm can continue to be offered.

Wendy Kramer, who runs DonorSiblingRegistry.com and advocates for more regulatory oversight in the donor industry, says that marketing can be illusory. “They can say whatever they want to say,” she says. “They can say they have better medical testing, that their donors look like movie stars, that a donor won’t have more than 10 kids. Their job is to sell sperm.”

When banks are targeted for public reprisal or litigation over failed assurances, it’s often the promise of donor limits that wound up being broken. Biological fathers that hold admirable traits are desirable for many. If their seed gets wide distribution, the number of half-siblings a child may have can get unwieldy.

“If my child wants to reach out to him later, and he has 45 other half-siblings doing the same thing, he could be overwhelmed by requests,” Alison says.

Checking Kramer’s site for mention of her donor’s anonymous numerical identification, she was relieved her selection had only recorded one. Limiting the number of live births also caps the exposure in the event a donor has an undocumented genetic trait.

But enforcing such regulations is often left up to the banks themselves. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only requires banks test for infectious diseases. Some states inspect banks, but only for health and safety standards, not record-keeping. The rest is based on the honor system—that donors are honest, and that banks are honest.

“The recipients concerned about multiple half-siblings have reason to be, as no formal restrictions are in place,” Daar says.

On their web site, California Cryobank maintains that their “maximum goal” is to cap donors at 25 to 30 “family units.” Such a ceiling is almost impossible to enforce given that the FDA doesn’t appear to be interested in setting guidelines.

“It’s a fox watching the henhouse situation,” says Kramer, who has tried to circulate petitions advocating for more FDA involvement but believes that the reproductive medicine industry lobbies in Washington to maintain its autonomy. “If a bank says they limit offspring, don’t take it at face value.”

It’s often the social networks that can validate or call into question the claims made by banks, acting as a kind of Yelp for couples or mothers looking to conceive. A short list of two or three potential donors could be vetted via the site to see if anyone else has used them and if there were any potential consequences.

“A sperm bank will tell you a donor is a Brad Pitt lookalike but won’t tell you he had 20 offspring with autism,” Kramer says. “They can’t, because they don’t know.”

For Alison, who has purchased one vial of her chosen donor and plans to time her pregnancy to her preferred timeframe in 2020, the endless options, screening, and exclusivity can begin to resemble white noise.

“It doesn’t matter to me if they include people with traits I don’t want,” she says. “I can look at that and go, okay, that’s not what I want. I’m looking for a donor, not a father.

“Never knowing half of a kid’s DNA is a tricky thing,” she adds. “But I care about having a child more than I care about that.”