Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
October 29, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 43
Deposits & withdrawals: the finances of sperm
By Ellen Frankfort
In 1866 an Italian scientist, working by himself, wondering how he could preserve human sperm cells, placed a single tube of semen in the snow. To his surprise, the cells survived. A century later, a group of businessmen, working with researchers from medical schools and pharmaceutical concerns, wondered how they could preserve millions of tubes of human sperm. For snow may be poetic but it’s just not practical. With commerce instead of curiosity their concern, the entrepreneurs chose a bank as their model. And last week New York’s first commercial human sperm bank opened.
A man wishing to make a deposit goes to the bank, which like many branches of Chase and First National is located in a luxury building. Once there, he’s shown a special room where he receives a “semen collection kit.” Taking his cue from the name, or from the stylishly translated Biblical saying, “From their seed they will perpetuate and forever they will live,” which hangs on the wall of the supervisor’s office, the client produces. Once the bank receives the specimen, technicians examine the sperm and mix it with a fluid that protects it during freezing. After a cooling period of 20 minutes, the glass vials are placed in a large tank containing liquid nitrogen. Inside it is 321 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, a temperature cold enough to preserve the sperm for 20 to 30 years.
Equipped to handle 11,000 vials a year, at a charge of $55 per deposit and $15 a year storage fee, the bank will gross large profits when full. In anticipation of overflow, Dr. Robert Ersek, whose firm, Genetic Laboratories, began business in Minneapolis, expects to open additional branches in Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, and Miami in what will be a nation-wide chain of frozen sperm banks. The New York branch is run by a former researcher from Endo Laboratories, a New Jersey pharmaceutical company.
At a time when money is tight, why are the founders of this new business so optimistic? Partly because money is tight. Last year, many of the 700,000 men who had vasectomies were policemen, firemen, and other members of the working class, whose fixed salaries, pinched by inflation, could not cover more children. Hence, the sterilization. But these men, who see children die and families wiped out almost every day, seek some kind of fertility “insurance,” which is why frozen sperm bankers, who estimate that most deposits will come from men about to undergo vasectomies, have reason to be cheerful.
But men who choose sterilization are not the only potential customers. For years couples who’ve wanted children but who can’t have any because the man is sterile have had a hard time finding donors when they decide on artificial insemination. Up until the frozen sperm banks, the gynecologist had to interview potential donors, select one who is not likely to produce damaged children, collect his semen, and inject the woman shortly after. All this takes time, which few gynecologists have. Hence their enthusiasm for a bank which will attend to the details of planning and coordination.
Interestingly, of the more than 400 children who have been born throughout the world by means of artificial insemination, not one has a congenital birth defect, as compared to the normal rate of three per cent. While no one argues that freezing sperm improves the genes, researchers point out that since most of the donors have been doctors in training, the genetic superiority is no coincidence. In fact, the first “frozen child,” an 18-year-old boy, not only has perfect health but a straight A average!
Some men who can produce motile sperm just can’t produce enough. By freezing several semen specimens, researchers hope the accumulated sperm will provide a sufficient number for fertility. Men who work at jobs where they are exposed to radiation which can damage fertility are also viewed as a source of clientele. Similarly, men who must undergo radiation or surgery for medical reasons are potential sperm bank customers. In fact, the first deposit to the New York bank was made by a young man who had flown from Atlanta to New York for cancer surgery.
The frozen sperm bank chose its first client wisely — any place which serves a man in such a poignant situation cannot help but endear itself to the public. However, most of the customers will not be young men about to undergo cancer surgery. The majority will be men who plan to have vasectomies. The standard price for that procedure — which takes under 20 minutes — is $150. When one adds the $55 fee for the freezing of the semen, and the $15 annual charge for its storage (the second bank plans to charge $80 and $18, respectively), the total is $220, a sum which many fathers of large families can’t afford. Like all other medical services, then, this new one, which clearly could be of grate benefit to many, starts out with a class bias.
But more important than the cost, which is far less than that for most medical procedures, is the fact that the business is being handled through the medical profession. According to a spokesperson for Idant, the corporation whose bank will open on Madison Avenue in November, only men who are referred by doctors will be accepted. In this way, it is hoped that “weirdoes” and any attendant sensational publicity will be prevented. For surely it would be bad for business to have a bunch of science fiction freaks, inspired by “insemination units” and “semen collection kits,” planning to mate with monkeys, let’s say. Last year five and a half million cattle were sired artificially, and who knows what hybrids human sperm might produce.
More realistically, suppose a man with outstanding genes tries to auction off his semen to the highest bidder. Already a Minneapolis businessman has stored his just in case his child produces no heirs. Or suppose a woman wants a child by her husband whose sperm has outlived him. These are serious questions. Here is how Dr. Erseck answered them, according to an article in the Times: “Our policy is that we do not own the semen; we are just a humble storage facility. The semen remains the property of the client, and only he, through his doctor, can authorize its use.”
So be it: businessmen are only “humble” storage men. But are doctors, who have been given the god-like power to decide who owns sperm or has a right to store sperm, so different from businessmen? Listen to the answer of a faculty member of a medical school when asked about the costs of frozen sperm: “I’m a professor at a medical school and I do research.” Yet the lofty professor, removed from the world of commerce, is also a chief consultant to the corporation financing the frozen sperm bank.
Once again the medical profession is allowing its aura of scientific detachment to shield what is clearly a commercial venture, partly because it is already tied in with the profits. If it were thought that more money could be made by locating the banks on Times Square instead of the Upper East Side, and by using owners or porn shops as middle men rather than doctors, I have no doubt that the founders of the banks would do just that.
Think about the linguistics: blood bank, frozen sperm bank, Chase Manhattan Bank. Is there any connection between the facts that vital life fluids are handled like green paper bills and that doctors, who often own or consult or participate in these banks, have the highest median income of any group in this country?
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]