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Planet Money Investigates The Origins Of The Sperm Bank


Our friends at Planet Money spend a lot of time reporting on banking, just not always this kind. This is a story about human reproduction. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi from our Planet Money podcast has covered every bank from the Federal Reserve to the Bank of America and now has gone looking for the origins of the sperm bank.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: One of the biggest sperm banks in the world is based in a little city in Denmark called Aarhus. Just past the reception desk, there's a row of donor cabins outfitted with touchscreen computers and erotic magazines. A little red light comes on when each donor cabin is occupied. And that's where I meet donor Niklas Finderup.

Have you spent a lot of time in this room, then?

NIKLAS FINDERUP: No, no, no. They don't like it when you stay too long. That's it. Time's up. (Laughter) No, that hasn't happened. Never. They never knock.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Are you donating today?

FINDERUP: I already did (laughter).

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Finderup is a recent college graduate, donates a few times a week for up to $75 a deposit. Each time, his donation goes from a little cup in the donor cabin to a lab in the back where it gets tested and divvied up into straws.

(Whispering) It's like a sperm assembly line in here.

Lab technicians then freeze the straws in liquid nitrogen, and it's off to storage.

It looks totally frozen. And it's making all these hissing sounds.

Until, eventually, somebody picks Finderup's profile from Cryos's online catalog, which includes things like his hobbies, academic interests.

FINDERUP: It's mostly pictures of babies there, presented as these prized stallions.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They have enough donations in storage for tens of thousands of potential babies, waiting to be packed in coolers and shipped around the world. But sperm banking hasn't always been such a high-tech, far-ranging enterprise. Rene Almeling is a sociologist at Yale who has written extensively on the fertility industry.

RENE ALMELING: For most of the 20th century, sperm donation was a fresh donation.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Meaning, basically, from the donor in one room at a doctor's clinic to the patient in another. Almeling says the first generation of frozen sperm banks started in the early '70s when they were marketed as a kind of insurance for men undergoing vasectomies or cancer treatment who might want to have children later on. But it remained a niche industry.

ALMELING: There really wasn't a great market for their services until HIV.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: After several women contracted HIV from fresh sperm donations in the '80s, fertility doctors recommended against its use. From then on, anyone seeking donor sperm on the medical market would need frozen sperm, which was quarantined and retested later on to make sure it was virus-free.

ALMELING: They had to turn to these sperm banks who had all the infrastructure for freezing sperm and testing donors and shipping the sperm out.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And as laws and social norms around same-sex parenting and single motherhood have shifted, so too has sperm banking's customer base. Cryos says that 75 percent of its customers are now single women and same-sex couples. Almeling says the U.S. sperm industry has grown dramatically in part because it remains vastly underregulated, which has raised a host of ethical concerns.

ALMELING: Sometimes, sperm donors will have 50 offspring or 150. And in part, that's because these sperm banks are businesses, and they are collecting sperm from people they spend a lot of money screening.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: At the same time, Almeling points out, countless families might not have otherwise gotten started if it weren't for these sperm banks and the broader market for sex cells. That's cells with a C. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).
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