Carrying On: Sperm: It’s all about the potency, baby

August 27, 2010

What am I worth? This is a question that is difficult for almost anyone to answer off the cuff. If you want to answer that question in its literal sense, you might calculate the net value of your expected lifetime earnings or assets. But anyone who’s not an investment banker knows that worth is based on more than dollars and cents. So how do you calculate the value of a person?

How about the value of the children you can have based solely on your genetic makeup? More specifically, what is the value of one’s sperm? This notion occurred to me last month while I was watching The Kids are All Right, a film about a lesbian couple whose children seek out their sperm donor dad. After watching Annette Benning and Julianne Moore navigate their marriage and bond with Mark Ruffalo, I began to think more about the realities of sperm donation and what makes someone a good sperm donor. What is it that makes someone want to have babies with your genetic material?

It’s not necessarily what you’d think. Physical appearance isn’t everything, although most potential mothers can browse donors’ entire physical curriculum vitae before selecting their matches. I learned that sperm banks prefer young donors, particularly college-aged ones. If you were to make a donation, almost all banks would give you an extensive questionnaire and run a check on your family history for infectious diseases, HIV, blood types—basically anything that they can use to predict the health of your potential children.  One’s sperm must also be “bankable,” or be able to be frozen and stored easily without eliminating their viability.  This isn’t as easy as you might think. Cryos—a large sperm bank in Denmark, where sperm banking is a quite a big industry—only accepts about eight to 10 percent of would-be donors.

So, once a donor passes all of the tests and is certified as disease-free, how do they separate the boys from the men? This is where it gets interesting. The scarce data on what makes a donor desirable suggests that height and intelligence are big gets. In browsing the donors section on Cryos’s website (you can shop for a donor online, in the literal sense of the word, much like you would browse an online dating website), I found that for the New York City metropolitan area, only one out of 39 donors was under 5 feet 7 inches, and many were above 6 feet tall. You can even view photographs of the donors from when they were children, although that seems more creepy than useful.

As for shopping for intellect, women seeking a sperm donor can browse in-depth fact sheets from each donor, with information about the percentile each donor occupied in high school and college, how many years they’ve been in school, and if they are scientifically- or artistically-minded.  Their occupations are also listed; the Cryos listings for New York City included occupations that ranged from traffic surveyor to investment banker. Parts of the survey even suggest that potential mothers might be looking to control for personality. There’s a section about personal characteristics on the questionnaire, with questions like “Did you play sports as a child?” and “What musical instruments do/did you play?” Donors also have to undergo a psychological evaluation given by the sperm bank.

From all this, what is a donation of sperm from a “good donor” worth? That really gets us to the question of what makes a good donor, and as I said before, it’s not what you’d think. Despite the extensive menu that potential mothers can browse through in search of a donor with the desirable  height, smarts, and personality, what brings in top dollar from these moms is the fertility level of one’s donation. This makes sense, considering that the average rate for successfully conceiving with donated sperm is less than 20 percent. In the end, sperm donation is even less glamorous than genetic mate-shopping seems at first. In the end, it all comes down to whether or not your material get somebody pregnant.


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