Procreative Compounds: Popular Eugenics, Artificial Insemination and the Rise of the American Sperm Banking Industry
Daniels, Cynthia R., Golden, Janet, Journal of Social History
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. (1) 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. (4)
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." (6) The development of sperm cryobanking into a multi-million dollar industry in the United States over the past twenty-five 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 and 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 upper-class 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 science, we can see it as a movement that meshed with popular beliefs about heritability, good breeding and healthy families. In their quest to overcome childlessness within a society that viewed children as emotionally fulfilling and as markers of a household's status, families could not help but try to select the characteristics of their children by employing the best that medicine had to offer.
There are, of course, significant differences between artificial insemination by donor sperm as practiced in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century and the purchase and use of sperm from cryobanks in recent decades. AID was a highly secretive medical procedure of questionable legal status in its early years. Only families deemed acceptable by doctors had access to this technology and it was up to physicians to find the donors, who were typically selected for their physical resemblance to the husband and for their educational and professional attainments. The modern cryobanking industry developed after legal questions about individuals conceived through AID had been answered and well past the time when assisted reproductive technologies were available only to those designated as acceptable by a small cadre of physicians. The development of other, more advanced techniques for assisted reproduction, changes in popular ideas about families and family formation, the rise of feminism, and challenges to the cultural authority of medicine pushed decision-making about AID out of the hands of doctors and made it a consumer-driven process. Nevertheless, the eugenic ideals that permeated the development of AID in the first half of the twentieth century have continued in modified form. In the current sperm banking industry, those purchasing straws of semen select donors with "musical abilities," high SAT scores or particular religious convictions the way physicians in the 1930s chose donors of phlegmatic temperament.
The expansion of the genetic sciences in the past twenty years and development of the Human Genome Project have served to reinforce popular belief in the heritability of both physical and social traits. Scientists now commonly search for the genetic markers of diseases and employers conduct genetic tests on prospective employees even as Congress debates whether such testing should be forbidden. Along with such genetic screening have come assertions that things like alcoholism, shyness, criminality, aggression, altruism and risk-taking propensities are genetic in origin. As a culture, we appear to place more faith in the science of genetic causality than at any time since the peak of the eugenics movement. Some have argued that this renewed and misplaced faith represents a more subtle, but equally troublesome, form of eugenics. As Troy Duster concludes: "to put it metaphorically, when eugenics reincarnates this time, it will not come through the front door, as with Hitler's Lebensborn project. Instead it will come by the back door of screens, treatments and therapies. Some will be admirably health-giving, and that will be the wedge. But sooner or later, each will face the question of when to shut the back door to eugenics." (10) Sperm banking, we suggest, has one foot firmly planted in the "old" eugenics and one foot in the new, more benign "backdoor" eugenics.
Seminal Merchants and Proxy Fathers: The Development of Artificial Insemination with Donor Sperm
In the United States, artificial insemination developed along two tracks. One involved the treatment of female infertility in married women through the placement of her husband's sperm into her cervix--a procedure today referred to as "artificial insemination by homologous" (by husband) or AIH. The other track used donated sperm for the treatment of male infertility, or artificial insemination by donor (AID). AIH occurred first and, although controversial because it violated standards of female modesty, was nonetheless reported in the medical literature. J. Marion Sims described experiments in uterine insemination in the 1860s, including his repeated inseminations of six women. Only …
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Publication information: Article title: Procreative Compounds: Popular Eugenics, Artificial Insemination and the Rise of the American Sperm Banking Industry. Contributors: Daniels, Cynthia R. - Author, Golden, Janet - Author. Journal title: Journal of Social History. Volume: 38. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2004. Page number: 5+. © 2009 Journal of Social History. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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