The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
By David Plotz
'I thought it was pissing in the ocean." That is how one of the donors to the "Nobel Prize" sperm bank described feeling when called upon to contribute his seed to the Repository for Germinal Choice, the sperm bank established by eccentric southern California millionaire Robert Graham. The repository promised women the sperm of Nobel Prize winners and other brilliantly accomplished men so that they could breed little geniuses who would grow up to benefit the hapless masses.
The launch of the project in southern California in 1980 made a media splash whose echoes reached a 10-year-old Manhattanite named David Plotz. Twenty-three years later, as deputy editor of the Internet magazine Slate, Plotz decided to track down what became of the millionaire crank's dream, which had fizzled out in 1999. In his ensuing article, Plotz called on whoever had any involvement - donors, offspring, mothers, employees - to get in touch with him. This book is the result, and it makes for an engrossing reality read.
The donors to the Repository for Germinal Choice were not paid, nor were the women who received their sperm asked for any money beyond the cost of the vials used to transport it. Eugenics drove the institution, but its greatest impact, according to Plotz, was to push the practice of sperm donation into the world of consumer choice.
But the repository was just as likely to stretch the truth as any commercial advertiser. Despite the glowing descriptions in its catalogues - hyper-detailed ads that anticipated the video profiles of today's sperm banks - two of the four donors Plotz dug up turned out to be first-rate losers. The creepier of the two is the unemployed son of a Nobel Prize winner (only two of the donors were actual Nobel winners) whose only goal in life is to beat the biological game by engendering as many offspring as possible without the burden of supporting them - or even the bother of seducing their mothers.
The other, more charming though equally disturbed, donor turns out to be the biological father of Tom, a 15 year old who answers Plotz's call in hopes that he'll trace his "real" father after his mother informs him that his distant, none-too-successful dad is not his biological sire. This poignant story is the narrative heart of the book - at its most engrossing, Plotz plays sperm detective and ultimately discreet host at "reunions" between the fathers and the children.
SOME 30,000 sperm donor babies are born every year, according to Plotz. With medical advances granting even the most reproductively challenged men the chance to become fathers, the majority of clients at most sperm banks today are single women and lesbians. That statistic has forced to the surface the most acute issue in the world of sperm donation today - donor anonymity. Many married women don't tell their children that they were the products of a sperm donation - at least not as long as their marriages hold. But for single mothers, it's often a different story.
The desperate donor offspring turning to Plotz in hopes of discovering their genetic patrimony - along with the thousands now plaintively posting, "Hi my name is K-. I have blond hair and blue eyes. I'm looking for my father. He has blonde hair, green eyes and is 5'9"" - has convinced him of the moral right of these children to know their fathers. But Plotz points out that donor offspring, and oftentimes their mothers, are foolish to look for connections with "donor dads" - something they are not likely to find from a stranger who masturbated into a sterile cup in a clinic.
Governments in a number of European countries have ended donor anonymity and ordered the establishment of registries for sperm and egg donors, resulting in a drying up of supply. In this "classic Europe-US split," Plotz points approvingly at American clinics that voluntarily piece together an identity-release program.
Banned by the Catholic church, sperm donation has so far not been subject to any kind of government regulation in the States: "Lefties didn't want to tamper with sperm banking and fertility because that would imply a government right to control what women could do with their own bodies. Abortion rights advocates feared that precedent. And the Right tended to ignore sperm banking and fertility because although they were medicine, they looked like commerce. The free market was providing a service that women wanted: Why mess it up?"
No baby Einsteins seem to have emerged from among the 215 children born out of the repository project, but genius babies were not what the would-be mothers were looking for; a well-rounded prodigy who could also play basketball was the American ideal.
Plotz teases out the spectre of eugenics past and future in his book. He imagines scenarios in which prospective dads pressure doctors into shaping their progeny's genes, as in "Doc, this kid has got to play tennis."
According to Plotz, the birth of his own children provided further impetus for his book. It is telling, then, that he avoids any mention of the one way in which eugenics continues to affect every pregnant woman who feels the pressure to give birth to a perfect baby - the prenatal tests designed to weed out the less-than-perfect fetus.