ISO spermatozoa with genetic inclination for midnight walks on beach, Mozart, and pasta primavera by candlelight with a few close friends. No commitment needed; banking on mate-free selective procreation.
Looking for that tall dark stranger you'll never actually meet? Never exchange romantic glances with, probably never know his name? Well, never mind--because none of this means you can't have his baby.
Infertile couples and women contemplating pregnancy through sperm or egg donation today can browse physical descriptions and personality attributes of anonymous donors with whose genetic ribbon they might choose to tie a knot. Online "donor catalogues" now provide virtual window shoppers with a detailed low-down on hundreds of donors--personal vitae such as height, weight, appearance, personal and family medical history, occupation, educational background, personality traits, interests, and in some cases even more. Though not exactly the lyrical "tall, dark, SWM loves long walks" come-on common to the personals, many come close. Some critics think too close for comfort.
When news broke last month that a new and controversial Web site called "RonsAngels.com" proposed to auction off the fertile eggs of beautiful young models for as much as $150,000 a pop, the crass commercialism invading an industry that previously was tastefully veiled in privacy and discretion caught the public and the profession off guard. The ethics of bidding up genetically blessed ova over the Internet seemed to cross the line of decency. Outraged mainstream infertility groups wondered if, in a world that is already sadly superficial, even artificial insemination now could be going only skin deep?
Since then, that same egg entrepreneur, fashion photographer Ron Harris, has announced a model sperm auction whose donors are described as handsome, healthy, intelligent men. Details are available only to paid visitors of the site, but anyone can access the full-color photograph of a Speedo-clad male model, supposedly one of the pricey donors. Minimum bid: $15,000.
At the Fairfax Cryobank laboratory, located in a nondescript medical office building off Route 50 in Fairfax County, a dozen large tanks store thousands of sperm specimens in a liquid hydrogen deep-freeze at minus 196 degrees C. Amid test tubes and microscopes, two laboratory specialists conduct tests, wash specimens, separate them into marketable quantities, and slowly freeze specimens to minus 80 degrees C. before transferring them into the larger tanks.
Nearby, several "dry shippers" that maintain the frozen sperm for seven days in transit await their deliveries to physicians worldwide. Down the hall, behind closed doors, are smaller rooms where pre-screened and chosen men donate their sperm in exchange for an average $170 per visit. Catalogues containing profiles of 103 donors are as accessible in the cryobank's reception area as magazines in a dental office.
Fairfax Cryobank director Brent Hazelrigg says that while the sperm bank business has evolved over the past decade or so, nothing has changed as radically as how it markets its services.
"Now the patients have a lot more choices. And they know more about the donor's medical and genetic history than they do about their own husband," says Hazelrigg, who a year ago in September launched the cryobank's Web site, http://www.fairfaxcryobank.com/, which now averages 522 visitors a day. "When we started in 1986, we had the donor register and that was it . . . a one-line description. Somewhere down the road, we had a one-page medical profile, which grew to two pages. And then we added the personal profile, and the 14-page medical profile."
But, as in nearly every kind of business today, the Internet is changing the rules and boundaries of how the sperm and egg donation services operate.
One of the largest sperm banks in the world, Fairfax Cryobank now advertises online; previously it had not advertised anywhere. Its Web site contains extensive information about donor selection procedures, infectious disease and genetic testing info, even a birth-date calculator and a blood-type predictor. Visitors can access for free its basic donor catalogue, or search it for preferred characteristics such as ethnic background, race, eye color, hair color, educational background, etc.
Donor number 1201, for instance, is Caucasian, 6 feet 2, 225 pounds, fair skin tone, blue eyes, brown wavy hair, blood type AB-negative, of German and English descent, a second-year graduate student in economics, and likes opera, cycling and writing. Clicking the donor's highlighted number goes deeper: He doesn't wear glasses, has no dietary restrictions, suffers from mold and cedar allergies, has a healthy sister and no brothers, both parents are living and healthy, etc. "We do provide fairly in-depth information," says Hazelrigg, adding that their donors' 12-15 page medical profiles are available online for $7 each, while nine-page personal profiles cost $12 each.
"The sperm banking business has become more competitive," says Hazelrigg, explaining that there now are about 100 sperm banks in the United States. "Patients are going to use the bank that gives them the information they feel they need."
Inserting a CD audio disk in his office computer, he clicks play and turns up the volume. With sensitive music in the background, a female interviewer's voice asks: "Do you think that somebody who looked at your donor profile . . . would get a good picture of what kind of person you are?"
A donor replies: "Somewhat. I think they would understand I am an involved person and am driven in a lot of things. Beyond that, I am also a very sensitive person."
Fairfax Cryobank's new donor audio program will be as up-close and personal as it plans on getting in the foreseeable future, says Hazelrigg. But other sperm banks and some egg donor centers go much further. One of them is the Atlanta-based Xytex.com. For an extra charge, the online sperm bank offers customers baby pictures of consenting donors, current photographs, 10-minute video tapes, even a donor essay about interests and hobbies that includes "a message to you or your future children." Pacific Reproductive Services, http://www.hellobaby.com/select.html, offers a high percentage of donors who are willing to be identified once the offspring reach adulthood.
Other sperm banks are specializing in donor types, along the lines of the "genius sperm banks" that trade only in high-IQ genetics, though not nearly as brazen--nor as expensive--in their selectivity as RonsAngels.com's promise of physical beauty. San Francisco's Rainbow Flag Health Services, http://www.gayspermbank.com/, for instance, actively recruits gay and bisexual sperm donors, who agree to be identifed to the mother when the child is 3 months old. Indeed, Cryobank's "Fairfax Doctorate" program offers sperm of PhDs, and donors with law degrees and medical school degrees for almost twice the $115 per dose its otherwise ordinary sperm costs.
"Everything being equal, couples select the donor with more education," says Hazelrigg. "So we really made an attempt since late '95 to increase the number of donors available with the higher education."
Meanwhile, egg donor recipients tend to be discriminating over the donor's weight and height, and there's no market for the sperm or eggs of unattractive or overweight donors, says Hazelrigg. "It's not worth the investment we're going to put into it."
Russ Bierbaum says the Internet has changed things compared to the early 1970s when Cryogenic Laboratories Inc., where he is the technical director, started "dabbling in donor semen" as the country's first private sperm bank. And he is not sure all the changes are for the better.
While Cryogenic Laboratories, http://www.cryolab.com/, now publishes its extensive donor catalogue online, the Minneapolis sperm bank does nothing to jeopardize its donors' anonymity, he says. "Some sperm banks provide pictures of the donors. To me, that is a violation of anonymity. There are some recipients who want that contact with the donor. If that's the case, they don't want us."
Paying sperm donors more compensation than for their inconvenience and expenses is also against Cryogenic Laboratories' philosophy, he says, aghast that donated sperm and eggs would be auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars. His sperm bank charges patients $170-190 per insemination. "We want people to have some altruistic reason for doing this, to help an infertile couple, as opposed to straight money. The more you pay, the less the altruistic reason plays a role."
Fairfax Cryobank's doctorate program? "We are totally opposed to charging more for more highly educated donors," says Bierbaum. "If you look at our catalogue, you'll find some of our people have PhDs and some don't. All of our semen is the same price." Charging more, he adds, isn't illegal, nor unethical, just a difference in philosophy.
But, with no industry guidelines, only two states with strict laws governing sperm banking and human egg donation, and scheduled U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations probably two years away, some infertility experts fear supply-and-demand in the marketplace may steer the industry to deplorable extremes.
"Donor options are an important consideration for a couple," says Diane Aronson, executive director of Resolve--The National Infertility Association, based in Somerville, Mass. "But with these emerging marketing schemes, it's more we have the best donors, the brightest donors, etc., and that moves away from what might be best for the couple. We don't want to see people just going on the Internet and not getting the right information and counsel before they venture into these options."
But providing more information and options for an educated customer is what Hazelrigg credits the Internet as doing best in the sperm bank business. "Patients in medicine, no matter what the field, are more empowered and demand to know more. People don't just sit there anymore and say 'yes doctor,' " he says. "Five years ago, the doctor would say 'You need to use a sperm donor, here's a list, pick one.'
"In the future, I suspect there will be more and more banks, and maybe us included, having people calling up and saying 'we'd like to talk to the donor on the phone, maybe even meet the donor.' "