#952: Sperm Banks


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It's marketing but also they want their donors to practice safe sex next to the waiting room. There are these rooms called donor cabins with touchscreen computers and erotic Roddick magazines. A Little Red light comes on when the donor cabin is occupied. And that's where I meet. Nicholas funeral if you spend a lot of time in this room no no. They don't lagged when you stay so long as it times hasn't have never they never knock donating today already. Did his donation goes from a little in a cabin to a lab in the back where it gets tested and divvied up into these little straws lab lab technician then need to freeze these straws and to do that. They slowly dip straws into liquid nitrogen. It's at negative three hundred twenty one degrees Fahrenheit. It's like that's the sound of them freezing. It's making all these. Hissing sounds can boost it in post. Then it's off to storage. They have enough donations in here for tens of thousands of babies and it's not like rows and rows and rows of sperm samples the entire stock. All of these donations live in just four kind of small stainless steel cannisters. All this cold steam comes out when you open the LID and of course all of this starts with a deposit from someone like Nicholas. He just graduated from college a few months ago just fulltime spin spend donating. It used to work part time at an architecture firm this lot less time consuming. I mean it doesn't look as Nice on your resume somme though. He says he doesn't really know why he came. In that. First Time perhaps the idea of of fathering children matured in my head And so when I reached that step it clicked made says why wouldn't help. Other people conceive not everyone has the sperm quality to become a sperm from donor. Krause accepts like five to ten percent of the people who come in but Nicholas Cage turned out to be a great candidate. I remember coming in after having delivered the first remmel and the look in their eyes as they told me that would definitely like to see me back. A there was money in those is saw dollar signs. Those nice those Muslim confirmation. I can definitely father babies. And he takes this seriously. He changed his diet. Limits the amount of coffee and alcohol. He drinks he and his girlfriend have to be intimate with each other around his donation schedule he comes in and around three times a week it becomes even more than that. His sperm count starts to dip. Okay here's how payments work the customers pay between fifty dollars and seventeen hundred dollars for a single angle Straw of sperm. It's a pay scale on the high end of the scale customers are paying for the best quality sperm. They're paying for sperm. That's had the most genetic testing possible. And they're paying to get as much information as possible about the donor and this is a really important part of the process because people want information about their donor. They want to know what they majored in in college. What their hobbies are even though? That's not genetic they WANNA see a baby picture or in adult picture. Get a voice recording of the donor. Hear how he sounds maybe he sounds boring. And you don't WanNa choose him and all this information gets curated into one big extended donor profile online nine presented as these prized stallions. I mean that's what I presume. The customers want there would like to have this nice story This is nice narrative about a viking from the north and he plays as music in goes mountain biking. Whatever it could be so I mean it's natural but it's still strange Nicholas gets up to seventy five dollars? Deposit is it. I am actually saving for a car. which is it then? I'm going to build into a like a van. Van Van living living in. What do you call that then? Life van live band. Yeah exactly and then I'm GonNa hit the road. Hello and welcome to planet money. I'm lexie Horowitz Ghazi. I'm Sarah Gonzales today on the show a kind of bank bank we don't normally talk about here. Sperm Banks Sperm Banks are whisking DNA from one continent to another at the click of a button. The history of that industry and how one Danish business student turned a strange dream into one of the biggest sperm operations on the planet with a little help from his mom's freezer and mad cow disease. This message comes from. NPR sponsor. fundraise fundraise has innovated the way people can an invest in real estate. They are the first online investment platform designed to give people the opportunity to own a portfolio of high quality real estate affordably. Thanks to their cutting Ed. LOW COST MODEL ACCESS PRIVATE MARKET REAL ESTATE PROJECTS FROM HIGH RISES IN D. C. to multifamily apartments in La to get started visit F. U. N. D. Eighty R I s e Dot Com slash money. To have your first six months of advisory Fees Waived Greg Rusedski. Here I write the planet money newsletter. We keep you up to date with stories behind fed decisions the housing market and big scooter subscribe NPR Dot Org Slash Planet money newsletter. Just just the right amount of economics sent weekly. Kara Swanson is a law professor and historian at Northeastern University. And she's kind of sperm banking expert. I'm the author of a book called banking on the Body a history of markets in blood milk and sperm in modern America. Okay the first reported successful exemption using a sperm donor happened in the US in eighteen eighty four and back then for a long time. The only way to do artificial elimination was with a fresh donation. Meaning basically straight from the donor in one room to the recipient in another room so couples would go to their doctors say. Hey we're having trouble. Conceiving and their doctor would like look ground and choose someone in the building to donate like some medical student who looked most like the couple or in some cases the doctor himself not ideal and it was all kind of Hush Hush and then people started experimenting getting with freezing sperm. It started with animal breeding cows mostly in the early nineteen fifty s group of scientists in Iowa started testing out the technique on humans aunts and in nineteen fifty three they announced the first human birth from frozen sperm and people immediately started to think about what that might mean for the world the headline line and the Iowa paper after the first human pregnancies was fatherhood after death now possible and it took a little while but eventually eventually some entrepreneurs started thinking about how this technology might be used in business now that you can freeze sperm. You can stock could put it on a shelf. It's inventory now and just like that in the early nineteen seventies the first generation of sperm bankers was born but they weren't targeting in couples who wanted kids this service was intended Furman men who are having the sect amies going through things like cancer treatment so these as early sperm banks were what I call. Sort of safe deposit banks. It was a matter of you will give us your identified semen semen. We will freeze it and store it just for you and give it only back to you. said the service being offered to man. As a form of fertility insurance the market for frozen sperm was pretty small until the HIV AIDS crisis hit by nineteen eighty three or nineteen eighty-four it is recognized denies that the HIV virus that causes AIDS can be transmitted through semen and suddenly a technique to treat. Infertility is potentially deadly treatment several women contracted HIV in the mid nineteen eighties from fresh donation. It turned out it can take up to six months for HIV to shove and tests so doctors decide we cannot use fresh sperm anymore. We have to freeze it. If we freeze a new sample we can wait six months and retest the donor to make sure they don't have the virus frozen sperm went from being an option targeted just toward men having sacked amies to the standard for everyone straight couples and eventually same sex couples and single women. They wanted frozen sperm. That could be tested. So now we all needed actual frozen sperm banks and around that time a young business student in Denmark had a vision about the future of frozen burn. Say Your name. My name is oldest call and it is difficult to pronounce but Oldest goal all scowl ORLA is from Denmark. And he's going to tell us a little story. Well it all started longtime ago. There was a young man. Twenty seven years. Old It's Ali or less the young man. I wake up at night and had a dream about frozen sperm and you had a dream about frozen frozen sperm in particular. Yes may simple no it it. It was a yeah act crazy dream. We dream I'm and It was just a still picture of a sperm in is just a still picture of sperm in case piece actually frozen in ocean waves. I realized that when when I woke up that it was a little peculiar way trim could get it out if my head he becomes consumed with the whole idea of sperm. He's studying business by day studying sperm. By night I delete a microscope which was a gift from my parents. It could allow one hundred two hundred and three hundred times and I could start my own sperm and I started to make experiments with different freezing agents. Any tells no one about his experiments. No I didn't tell anybody because it was embarrassing. I didn't even tell the to to my friends because they would probably think I was crazy. I did tell it to my mother because at a time my freezer was full of frozen sperm. So I couldn't have more so US stores almost the frozen sperm in her freezes and I think they probably thought I was crazy but maybe guy was frozen sperm and your mom's freezer yeah. I know it's not good but that that was so and there were sperm banks in the world already but there were really long wait times and low pregnancy rates so all I wanted to make this process better a wanted to be the best think my father. Teach me that so I didn't thought about being the biggest addict wanted to as good as a best best sperm yeah simply crammed claim got no for six years. Old is experimenting. He's learning how freezing and thawing work learning what makes good sperm. What doesn't doesn't like good mobility the ones that swim the most vigorously high sperm count any learns that the main thing that's really bad for sperm is heat so therefore four I say to the donors keep the bolts cold use Boxer shorts don't take hot showers and yeah keep them cold old all the time gave him. God okay that's news you can use. He opens up his first clinic. In one thousand nine hundred eighty seven calls it krause and goes looking for donors. It was hundred under percents students that time. I didn't have money for advertising so I took my bicycle and put some posters up way I could and I wake quickly find out. It was mainly from the university area. I could hire the donors and right when he opens up. His little office gets a big order from a private hospital. I got an auto out of five hundred thousand Danish crowns about eighty thousand dollars and when we started to deliver to the hospital after one week they reported the first pregnacy Agnesi after two weeks. They've already got five. Pregnancies in word was getting out Salinas sat to spray it then professors doctors from hospitals and clinics across the country. Start a cold can wheels have have can we also have from you and yes of course soon. Other countries called Norway I Belgium in Finland basically northern European countries and. There's probably a reason why those were some of the first countries to call Olis' says people old generally want kids that looked like them and he's found that to be true all over the world across all ethnicities and at the time all. I basically had two types of of donors Scandinavian blonde blue eyed because the Danes been much blonde and blue-eyed also red-headed Denmark has is a lot of redheads and for awhile. ORLA stopped accepting donations from redheads. Because he says there wasn't enough demand. Yes yes that's true. But that's just a question about demand supply we seem to have too many Red Haired gave an interview where he said something like red-headed couple's ten to one a red ahead of donor. But if you single red hat may not be your first choice and that was not good. Oh yeah people upset. And I'm sorry that I've upset and people were saying. Take these ratepayer in again but but it it was it was basically just demand and supply we. You have to much of that stuff on our stock so we would not take more in the negative reactions. People had to always comment. It's not just about red heads. They Echo concerns about race and racism that have been just below the surface of the sperm baking industry. Since the beginning when artificial insemination I became a thing in the early twentieth century eugenicist celebrated it as a way to re engineer the human race to be clear. That's not the way people talk about sperm banks today but but when people use sperm banks they are buying DNA and their genetic traits that come with that hair color eye color skin color and the families we spoke to for this story said he can feel a little weird to sift through donors who have been categorized by what they look like in their education level and their medical history but that also when the option is they're all those things can feel like important information for a big decision for Ole and his sperm sperm-bank. It's more about simple supply and demand and in two thousand one he decides to come to the US to export Danish sperm to America and he markets them him as Viking babies which like okay but he opens a shop in Seattle then something seemingly unrelated happens in two thousand five that changes all his whole business plan something that felt a little bit like a trade war. Europe had said we don't want to feed our cows with. US scorn that is genetically modified so they banned the import of genetically modified US corn and a month later the US says we have things we WANNA banned from Europe to you like human sperm the US said it could have been exposed to mad cow disease and the ban is still in effect today all these other countries can Russian sperm to the US. Just Not Europe. That was the twenty fifth. May Two thousand five as a remember that that was a catastrophe so if all it wanted to continue to supply. US families with sperm. He would need to collect. US Sperm no imports so he opens up a place where people in the US can now now make deposits and he chooses the neighborhood that seems like so obvious Burbank Manhattan Lower Manhattan district in Bank district so yeah but it was not a good idea to be there because there was not a sufficient numbers of donors the less altruistic crowd in in Wall Street potentially. That's that's through the Wall Street crowd. Not Big donors apparently so all moves the Sperm Bank to Orlando Florida right next to the biggest university in the US because he knows from Denmark that college students are big donors and collecting us. Donations donations changed olas whole business. Because now he had all kinds of types dark hair brown eyes skin full reins of Olefin types. All close does all sizes and I call him because okay the US has all these different types of people. And once he had all these different phenotype he gets by all these other regions of the world who wanted babies who looked like them people. In countries in South America and Africa who didn't have sperm banks so like Nigeria area they didn't have a big sperm donation industry. So all I was like I can send to you because oil. It could still exports Brown from the US. The band was only on European sperm imports. In some places they ship donor sperm in dry ice straight to people's homes and he supplying families in the US too and it's all these new markets that the help cry US become one of the biggest sperm banks in the world with around thirteen. Hundred donors wait. Thirteen hundred sperm. Donors doesn't actually seem like a lot lot of sperm donors Managed Them Bang struggle to find donors. So many only have maybe ten or even less The biggest Bambang the United States have about five hundred so it is many these days or less says around eighty percent of crisis customers our same sex couples was queer couples single people and demand from US customers in particular is actually what led to what we heard about in the beginning of the show extended profiles paying more for more information about the donor outside of the US. Many countries didn't give you much information about donors at all that list of names but that was kind of it. It was the only race hair call. I call her height and weight. Nothing more Americans were like. Oh no no no. We're going to need much more information. Yeah so so. They need as Morris Batter so we call that extended profile donors with ten pages of personal information about donuts baby photos or photos or psychological tests and these extended profiles are really helpful to people in other countries because some of their sperm banks. Thanks aren't allowed to share information about donors. It's illegal so like Spain. You don't even get to choose your donor. Dr Dez and in France legally a single MOMS and same sex couples cannot get sperm so cruise ships sperm to Belgium and people in France go to Belgium to pick it up in Australia. Elliot donors cannot get paid and in two thousand five. The country said they could no longer remain anonymous and when that happened. The pool of donors shrunk. Yeah they were more. Darn is is an Australian before they brought in that law. Yeah definitely this is Michelle. I'm Michelle and I'm calling from Brisbane. Australia Michelle is one of our listeners. And she conceived her six-year-old Elsa using a sperm donor. She says her clinic in Australia. Only offered basic information about donors. I colored hair colour height. No pictures so she imported sperm from a bank in the US not krause the Seattle Sperm Bank. which does offer extended profiles who took her seven attempts just to get pregnant? She tried five different donors each vial of Sperm Koster nine hundred fifty dollars because she was paying for more information about the donors. I think I paid a hundred dollars for an all. Oh Access PA and that allowed me to look at all of the darndest by photos and read his personality profile and listen to an audio interview. Oh you got an audio interview. Yes it was actually really valuable in the end because I was considering two profiles and the one that I went we have who is ultimately the during of my child just sounded much more intelligent and well spoken more personable. The other ones seemed really awkward when he spoke. Were there any things you're looking for in particular. Yes they was. I'm not dispose he and I'm not musical so I went looking for Darna. Who had those traits in the hope that my child would have a chance of being sporty or musical? Is that genetic. I don't know if athleticism and musicality is genetic but I thought I'M GONNA give. My child is shocked at having those so I chose the during in a competitive headed of gymnast. Just a child who was a swimming college and he was part of a band and a whole range of instruments and my child is the least sporty. Child on the planet with Zero Coordination's we somme so it didn't work at school and Michelle and her son. They celebrate donor day every year. On the day he was conceived they blow up these balloons that say thank you donor owner only skull the Danish sperm banker retired from Krause international last year. Do you have any idea how many people you've helped create. Yeah or like how many estimate for the time being we have about seventy five thousand of bring seventy five thousand aspirin. That's that's like a city like fix maybe in Denmark it's not okay. The following message comes from our sponsor comcast the David Cohen Comcast Senior Executive Vice President helped launch their Internet essentials program and believes in the power of bringing the Internet to people without access. Eight eight years. We have been able to connect more than eight million low income Americans to the Internet and begun to make a difference in closing the digital divide and in getting people trained and comfortable with the Internet to learn more go to comcast corporation dot com slash Internet essentials. This message comes from. NPR Sponsor Vanguard Vanguard was founded on a simple but radical idea that an investment company can succeed because it puts investors. First I vanguard is client owned you own. Their funds and the Fund's own vanguard which means vanguard is built to ensure that your interests will be the priority together the vanguard thirty million investors are changing the way the world invests visit vanguard dot com or talk to your financial advisor to learn more. The today show was produced by Liza. Yeager Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer and Bryant. I sat at the show special. Thanks to Sebastian. More Rene Alma Link and Peter Wrestling also Bianca Jagger bonus for fact checking special thanks also to end fountain in and Alison Cocaine for chatting with us so much about their experience with sperm donation. If you're a family that uses donor and you want to send us pictures or videos or voice voice recordings of your kids tweet at US tags on instagram. Love to see him. We are at planet money or you can email us at NPR dot org. I'm Sarah I'm Alexi Horowitz Ghazi this is NPR. Thanks for listening. We actually trying to develop a method where women can not not just see the extended profiles and photos extended profiled pot also be toge- donor in a virtual way acted reality way so you can walk hand in hand on the beach or maybe even intercourse online. Oh my gosh I mean I can see the value of wanting to meet the person at least talk to them yeah.

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