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Previously in Web Citations:

Democratic Vistas

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Something for Everyone

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The Law and Spirit of the Letter

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Guiding Light

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Head for the Hills

Are you prepared for Y2K and impending global chaos? Find help on the Web (while you still can).

For more, see the complete Web Citations Index.

Be Fruitful and Multiply
February 25, 1999

A few centuries from now, people may well look back at the present era and consider it the waning phase of the Reproductive Dark Ages. Madness, wasn't it, creating children by random encounters of sperm and egg? And frightening, too, not being able to determine the physical and psychological characteristics of one's children prior to conception. What must it have been like to live in such a time, when reproduction was simply left up to chance?

There are signs we may be moving out of these dark ages. Things are still murky, but a glimmer of what's in store can be seen on the Internet, where sites devoted to the buying, selling, and banking of sperm are becoming increasingly common.

cryologo pictureThe California Cryobank, which bills itself as "an international leader in the field of sperm banking," is a good example of what's emerging online. Prominently displayed throughout the California Cryobank site are links to the "Donor Power Search," a search engine that allows those looking for sperm to choose characteristics such as eye and hair color, blood type, ethnicity, education level, religion, and occupation. (Want sperm from a 5' 11" Buddhist accountant with wavy black hair and brown eyes? The Power Search can find it.) Taped interviews are made available whenever possible, too, so that potential recipients -- and, eventually, their curious offspring -- can listen to donors respond to such questions as "What is your favorite college class and why?" and "How do you like to spend your free time?"

Ordering and shipping sperm over the Internet is easy -- every donor specimen is shipped in a liquid-nitrogen vapor tank ("appropriate procedures for thawing and handling specimens are included with every shipment"), and is accompanied by a "post thaw analysis" of the sperm being delivered. All specimens are racially color coded, with white vial caps for white sperm, black for black sperm, and yellow for Asian sperm.

Those traditionally interested in sperm banks tend to be couples in which the man is infertile, or women who are choosing to raise children without a male partner. The California Cryobank envisages a much larger market, however, and is using its Web site to get the word out. In "Why Consider Semen Storage?," the company promotes itself as an insurance provider of sorts, helping to care for, among others, fertile men who work in such high-risk occupations as the military and professional sports ("athletes … risk testicular injury"); men who are about to undergo cancer-related therapy ("frequently renders male patients infertile"); or men who simply aren't around much ("when the husband's schedule does not permit his availability, storing semen allows a wife to continue with the couple's reproductive plans"). The California Cryobank also refers to its ability to respond to "unique requests," and proudly points to the fact that it has, at a bereaved family's request, "successfully harvested and frozen sperm from a man who sustained brain death in an accident."

cryosrch pictureRecognizing that most men who might want to store their own semen don't live close to sperm banks, the California Cryobank makes home collection a simple affair ("IT'S AS EASY AS: COLLECT SEMEN, Gently mix with: TRANSPORT MEDIA, Call FedEx and Ship to: CALIFORNIA CRYOBANK"). But the very ease with which sperm can be gathered, marketed, sold, and distributed via the Internet troubles many people, among them those in countries such as England and Denmark, where laws concerning sperm donation tend to be much more restrictive. "Although it may seem tempting to buy sperm across the Internet," England's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority warned this past May, in response to stories of British women buying and receiving sperm from the United States, "you cannot avoid putting yourself and your potential child at risk." (The California Cryobank refutes such charges, and claims to be able to "provide safe, disease-tested sperm for artificial insemination from a wide selection of carefully screened and tested anonymous donors.") Sensing the new market opportunities that the Internet offers, the profitable Scandinavian sperm bank Cryos made it clear this past summer that it was unhappy about the British restrictions on importing sperm bought online. "We see this as protectionism and are taking the matter to the European court," a company representative told the press.

Like it or not, it's doubtful that there's any turning back from the online banking and distribution of sperm -- or, for that matter, of women's eggs. That said, it's likely that we won't be completely out of the dark ages for quite a while. "I have someone who wants an Orthodox Jewish [egg] donor who belongs to the Mensa Society," a doctor at an English fertility clinic recently said. "She'll be waiting a long time."

--Toby Lester

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More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Toby Lester is the executive editor of Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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