Procreative Compounds: Popular Eugenics, Artificial Insemination and the Rise of the American Sperm Banking Industry

By Daniels, Cynthia R.; Golden, Janet | Journal of Social History, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

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.

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