Who’s your daddy?

Our correspondent gets a hand on what makes a man becomes a sperm donor
By DAVID ANDREW STOLER  |  August 9, 2006

In Harvard Square, the sun is shining and the street is packed. There’s a parade on, the sidewalk jammed with foot traffic, and people have lined up outside an ATM to withdraw cash for souvenirs.

But as they get their $20 bills for the incense stands and food stalls, little do they realize that in the next building over, behind a door marked “private,” one of the world’s largest banks is accepting billions in deposits every day. Not, as you might have guessed, in dollars.

The California CryoBank (CCB) is a leader in the sperm donation industry: with offices in Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Cambridge, CCB sells approximately 2500 ampoules of semen monthly, in all 50 states and in 28 countries. At $330 per shot, this trade in 1.8-trillion sperm brings in nearly $10 million a year.

In 2000, the Wall Street Journal estimated the global sperm business to be worth almost $100 million a year. But with the growth of an Internet industry catering to alternative couples and unpartnered women, the sperm market stands to explode in the next decade.

The reasons people need sperm are obvious: according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, 10 to 15 percent of males worldwide have fertility problems; lesbian couples and single women have no sperm at all; and there are millions of other women who, because of illnesses like cancer, need to fertilize their eggs fast — with or without a husband.

The motivation for donors is less transparent. It’s not an easy process: CCB’s application forms are long and personal, and the company rejects 90 percent of the men who apply. Still, there’s far from a paucity of interest: up to 30 guys a day try to sell their goods just to CCB’s Cambridge branch. Furthermore, guys advertising their sperm are all over the Web.

It certainly isn’t for the money: men make an average of $75 a shot for sperm that sells for up to $2400 retail. To find out just why guys do it, I dropped my drawers (and what little pride I have) and stepped into what Dr. Cappy Rothman, CCB’s founder, calls the sperm bank’s “erotic masturbatory chamber.”

Onan and on
Sperm donation is as old as Western history. The first recorded case came in Genesis: when Onan’s brother was killed, it was his duty to continue his brother’s line by impregnating his sister-in-law, Tamar. Instead, Onan pulled out, and Tamar forced Judah, Onan’s dad, to “lay by the side of the road.” Sperm donorship was born.

According to Debora L. Spar, a professor at Harvard Business School, the medical industry took its time catching up. At first, if a couple had problems conceiving, it was assumed that the woman’s wiring was off. When scientists figured out that men might have something to do with it too, the “cures” included, yes, guys, shock therapy.

Eventually it occurred to doctors that it could be the semen itself: low sperm counts — slacker sperm. So doctors started collecting sperm from their friends and giving it to married couples in need. Spar, the author of The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception (Harvard Business School Press, 2006), says that the first “unapologetically commercial clinic” opened in 1970.

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