By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
All of this raises a key question: Do we really want the very people profiting from this industry to be the ones driving these issues?
California Cryobank’s headquarters are not far from where Bundy Avenue intersects the 10 freeway, in a typical West L.A. two-story office building, except this building was specifically designed by Rothman — a serious science-fiction fan — to resemble a set from Star Wars.
Along similarly futuristic lines, outside, in the middle of its parking lot, stands a 6,000-gallon nitrogen tank and a backup generator capable of providing six months of emergency power. Inside, just past the receptionist, sits a large, rectangular room: the home to 10 cryotanks, each containing 20,000 color-coded ampoules of sperm. Each ampoule holds up to 60 million sperm, with the color-coding determining the ethnicity of the donor.
On the wall, hanging above these tanks, four oversize paintings represent the history of life as we know it: the big bang, molecules emerging, sperm forming and embryos developing. Looking up at those paintings, Rothman says, “I designed those too. I like the reminder that something as big as life starts out so small.”
Just down the hall from the cryotanks are the masturbatoriums — the little rooms where prospective donors jerk off. There are three masturbatoriums at California Cryobank, which is something of an upgrade, since the original bank used a spare bathroom for this purpose. These three masturbatoriums come in three flavors: erotic, less-erotic and not-so-erotic. Perhaps because Rothman is a bit old-fashioned, or perhaps because they were designed by a rather attractive young woman from marketing, the photographs that wallpaper these rooms, especially when measured against today’s Internet porn standards, are tasteful to say the least. “For some guys,” notes Rothman, “it doesn’t take much.”
It may not take much to finish one’s business in these rooms, but it takes quite a lot to get into them in the first place. To become a donor at California Cryobank, one must submit to what Rothman calls “the most rigorous prescreening process in the field.”
This process begins with a college education because without one, California Cryobank doesn’t want your sperm. A long conversation follows, where donors are filled in on the obligations that come with the job — specifically that becoming a sperm donor typically means a year-and-a-half-long commitment. During that commitment, donors are paid 75 bucks a pop — with two to three pops a week required, meaning a guy stands to earn anywhere from $11,000 to $17,000 for his services.
If those terms are acceptable, two separate semen samples are taken and analyzed. “We’re looking for very fertile men,” explains Rothman. Normal sperm count is 20 million to 150 million sperm per milliliter of semen. By “very fertile,” Rothman means over 200 million sperm per milliliter. Sixty percent of those sperm must be motile and must look as sperm are supposed to look.
If all of this is shipshape, a three-generation genetic history is taken. More semen is obtained and screened for diseases. Most sperm banks test for 23 variations of the mutation that causes cystic fibrosis, while California Cryobank looks for 97 variations. Jewish donors are screened for Tay-Sachs; African-American donors for sickle-cell anemia. A complete physical is then taken, followed by a six-month quarantine to assure that slow-developing HIV is not lurking in the sperm.
The idea for the six-month quarantine originated at California Cryobank and is one of those practices that have since spread to the rest of the industry. After this waiting period, donors start producing. “We see them twice a week for semen, we see them once every three months for an updated battery of STD tests,” Rothman says. “We get to know them pretty well along the way.”
The first problem facing the industry right now — and all other issues are downstream consequences of this one — is not how well the sperm banks get to know these donors, but how well the prospective parents buying sperm and eggs get to know them.
The vast majority of hopeful parents choose a sperm or egg donor from a thick catalog — known as a “donor catalog” — which includes a description of their eye color, ethnicity and education level, a psychological profile, personal essays, and even audio interviews. Occasionally, adult photos of donors are included, and California Cryobank has just added baby pictures as well.
But the one thing prospective buyers are never permitted to know is the donor’s name. Anonymity is the bedrock upon which the sperm- and egg-bank business is based and, as Jane Mattes, a New York psychotherapist and founder of “Single Mothers by Choice,” an organization that represents the fastest-growing group to utilize frozen sperm, says, “Donor anonymity is the most crucial issue facing the industry today.”
What to do about that issue remains a mystery. While the industry maintains continual contact with its donors during the sperm-collection phase, California Cryobank and others have no way to keep track of donors after their tour of duty is done.
This becomes tricky because of a blizzard of genetic disorders for which there is no test, or which are so rare they don’t merit testing (there are 30,000 genes to look at, and every additional test performed raises the price of sperm). In addition, many diseases don’t manifest until later in life, yet most donors are college students, so these young disease carriers have yet to get sick. Furthermore, though most sperm banks say they are rigorous in their pre-donation investigations, many donors don’t know their own genetic history. Others lie to conceal it.