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Episode 952: Sperm Banks

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Episode 952: Sperm Banks

Episode 952: Sperm Banks

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

Just a quick note - this episode contains mature subject matter.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, HOST:

There's this city in Denmark called Aarhus.

Middle of the fall here in Denmark. It seems to be a pleasant little Danish college town. And I'm here to visit Cryos International.

GONZALEZ: Cryos International is a sperm bank.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Getting close here.

GONZALEZ: They ship frozen sperm all over the world to over a hundred countries.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And a lot of the action happens on the fifth floor of this kind of nondescript red brick building.

Is this the main office up here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The headquarters?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The headquarters - that's where I got to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR DINGING)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And right when you walk in, there's a bowl of sky-blue condoms right there. They say Cryos.

GONZALEZ: It's marketing, but also, they want their donors to practice safe sex.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Next to the waiting room, there are these rooms called donor cabins with touch-screen computers and erotic magazines. A little red light comes on when the donor cabin is occupied. And that's where I meet Niklas Finnerup (ph).

Have you spent a lot of time in this room?

NIKLAS FINNERUP: No, no, no. They don't like it when you stay too long. That's it. Time's up. No, it hasn't happened. They never knock.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Are you donating today?

FINNERUP: I already did (laughter).

GONZALEZ: His donation goes from a little cup in a cabin to a lab in the back where it gets tested and divvied up into these little straws. Lab technicians then need to freeze these straws.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And to do that, they slowly dip the straws into liquid nitrogen. It's at negative 321 degrees Fahrenheit.

It's like a sperm assembly line in here. And that...

(SOUNDBITE OF CLINKING)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's the sound of them freezing.

It's making all these hissing sounds. I can boost it in post.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Then it's off to storage. They have enough donations in here for tens of thousands of babies.

GONZALEZ: 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 canisters.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: All this cold steam comes out when you open the lid.

GONZALEZ: And, of course, all of this starts with a deposit from someone like Niklas. He just graduated from college a few months ago.

FINNERUP: Now I'm just full-time sperm donating. That's it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He used to work part-time at an architecture firm.

FINNERUP: This is a lot less time-consuming. But, I mean, it doesn't look as nice on your resume, though.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He says he doesn't really know why he came in that first time.

FINNERUP: Perhaps the idea of fathering children matured in my head. And so when I reached that step, it just clicked and made sense. Like, why wouldn't I help other people conceive?

GONZALEZ: Not everyone has the sperm quality to become a sperm donor. Cryos accepts, like, 5% to 10% of the people who come in. But Niklas turned out to be a great candidate.

FINNERUP: I remember coming in after having delivered the first sperm sample and the look in their eyes as they told me they would definitely like to see me come back. And they - there was money in those eyes.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They saw dollar signs.

FINNERUP: (Laughter) Yeah. That was nice. That was a nice little confirmation. I mean, yeah, I can definitely father babies.

GONZALEZ: 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 around three times a week. If he comes in more than that, his sperm count starts to dip.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: OK. Here's how payments work. The customers pay between $50 and $1,700 for a single 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.

GONZALEZ: And this is a really important part of the process because people want information about their donor.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: They want to know what they majored in in college, what their hobbies are, even though that's not genetic.

GONZALEZ: They want to see a baby picture or an adult picture, get a voice recording of the donor, hear how he sounds. Maybe he sounds boring and you don't want to choose him. And all this information gets curated into one big, extended donor profile online.

FINNERUP: Presented as these prized stallions. But, I mean, that's what I presume the customers want. They would like to have this nice story, this nice narrative about a Viking from the North, and he plays music and goes mountain biking, or whatever it could be. So, I mean, it's natural, but it's still strange.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Niklas gets up to $75 per deposit.

FINNERUP: I am actually saving up for a car, which then I'm going to build into a - like a van. Van living - for living in. What do you call that?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Van life.

FINNERUP: Van life van - yeah, exactly. And then I'm going to hit the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN LYONS' "TIJUANA '68")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi.

GONZALEZ: And I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Today on the show, a kind of bank we don't normally talk about here, sperm banks.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: 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.

GONZALEZ: With a little help from his mom's freezer and mad cow disease.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEAN LYONS' "TIJUANA '68")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Kara Swanson is a law professor and historian at Northeastern University, and she's kind of a sperm banking expert.

KARA SWANSON: I'm the author of a book called "Banking On The Body: A History Of Markets In Blood, Milk, And Sperm In Modern America."

GONZALEZ: OK, the first reported successful insemination using a sperm donor happened in the U.S. in 1884. And back then and for a long time, the only way to do artificial insemination 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 doctor, say, hey, we're having trouble conceiving. And their doctor would, like, look around 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.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And then people started experimenting with freezing sperm. It started with animal breeding - cows, mostly. In the early 1950s, a group of scientists in Iowa started testing out the technique on humans. And in 1953, they announced the first human birth from frozen sperm. And people immediately started to think about what that might mean for the world.

SWANSON: The headline in the Iowa paper after the first human pregnancies was "Fatherhood After Death Now Possible."

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And it took a little while, but eventually, some entrepreneurs started thinking about how this technology might be used in business. Now that you can freeze sperm, you can stock it.

GONZALEZ: Put it on a shelf. It's inventory now.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And just like that, in the early 1970s, the first generation of sperm bankers was born.

GONZALEZ: But they weren't targeting couples who wanted kids. This service was intended for men.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Men who were having vasectomies or going through things like cancer treatment.

SWANSON: So these early sperm banks were what I call sort of safe deposit banks. It was a matter of you will give us your identified semen. We will freeze it and store it just for you and give it only back to you. It's a service being offered to men as a form of fertility insurance.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The market for frozen sperm was pretty small until the HIV/AIDS crisis hit.

SWANSON: By 1983 or 1984, it is recognized that the HIV virus that causes AIDS can be transmitted through semen. And suddenly, a technique to treat infertility is a potentially deadly treatment.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Several women contracted HIV in the mid-1980s from fresh donation. It turned out it can take up to six months for HIV to show up in 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.

GONZALEZ: Frozen sperm went from being an option targeted just toward men having vasectomies 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.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And around that time, a young business student in Denmark had a vision about the future of frozen sperm.

GONZALEZ: Say your name for us.

OLE SCHOU: My name is Ole Schou, and it is difficult to pronounce, but Ole Schou.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Ole Schou.

GONZALEZ: Ole is from Denmark, and he's going to tell us a little story.

SCHOU: Well, it all started a long time ago. There was a young man, 27 years old.

GONZALEZ: It's Ole. Ole's the young man.

SCHOU: I wake up at night and had a dream about frozen sperm. And...

GONZALEZ: You had a dream about frozen sperm in particular?

SCHOU: Yes, very simple. No, it was, yeah, a crazy dream, a weird dream. And it was just a still picture of sperm in ice.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Just a still picture of sperm in ice, actually frozen in ocean waves.

SCHOU: I realized it when I woke up that it was a little peculiar, a weird dream. Couldn't get it out of my head.

GONZALEZ: He becomes consumed with the whole idea of sperm. He's studying business by day, studying sperm by night.

SCHOU: I had a little microscope, which was a gift from my parents. It could enlarge 100, 200 and 300 times, and I could study my own sperm. And I started to make experiments with different freezing agents.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And he tells no one about his experiments.

SCHOU: No, I didn't tell anybody because it was a little embarrassing. I didn't even told it 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 I asked my mother if I could store some of the frozen sperm in her freezer. And I think they probably thought I was crazy, but maybe I was. But, you know...

GONZALEZ: You put your frozen sperm in your mom's freezer?

SCHOU: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Ole.

SCHOU: I know it's not good, but that was so.

GONZALEZ: And there were sperm banks in the world already, but there were really long wait times and low pregnancy rates. So Ole wanted to make this process better.

SCHOU: I wanted to be the best. I think my father teach me that. So I didn't thought about being the biggest. I just want to do it as good as I could.

GONZALEZ: Best sperm.

SCHOU: Best sperm, yeah. Simply creme de la creme.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Oh, no.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: For 6 years, Ole is experimenting. He's learning how freezing and thawing work, learning what makes good sperm, what doesn't - like good motility, the ones that swim the most vigorously, high sperm count.

GONZALEZ: And he learns that the main thing that's really bad for sperm is heat.

SCHOU: So therefore, as I have said to the donors, keep the balls cold. Use boxer shorts. Don't take hot showers. And, yeah, keep them cold all the time.

GONZALEZ: Keep them cold, OK.

SCHOU: Yeah.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's news you can use.

GONZALEZ: He opens up his first clinic in 1987, calls it Cryos and goes looking for donors.

SCHOU: It was 100% students. At that time, I didn't have money for advertising, so I took my bicycle and put some posters up where I could, and I very quickly found out it was mainly from the university area I could hire the donors.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And right when he opens up his little office, Ole gets a big order from a private hospital.

SCHOU: I got an order of 500,000 Danish crowns. That's about $80,000. And when we started to deliver to the hospital, after one week, they reported the first pregnancy. After two weeks, they've already got five pregnancies.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And word was getting out.

SCHOU: So then it started to spread. Then professors and doctors from hospitals and clinics across the country start - called me. Can we also have, can we also have, can we also have from you? And, yes, of course.

GONZALEZ: Soon, other countries called - Norway first, Belgium, Finland - basically, northern European countries.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And there's probably a reason why those were some of the first countries to call. Ole says people generally want kids that look like them. And he's found that to be true all over the world across all ethnicities.

GONZALEZ: And at the time, Ole basically had two types of donors.

SCHOU: The Scandinavian blond, blue-eyed because the Danes are very much blond and blue-eyed.

GONZALEZ: Also, redheaded. Denmark has a lot of redheads. And for a while, Ole stopped accepting donations from redheads because he says there wasn't enough demand.

SCHOU: (Laughter) Yes, that's true. But that is just a question about demand and supply. We simply had too many red-haired.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: He gave an interview once where he said something like redheaded couples tend to want a redheaded donor.

SCHOU: But if you are single, red hair may not be your first choice.

GONZALEZ: Uh-oh.

SCHOU: And that was not good. Uh-oh, yeah. People were upset. And I'm sorry that I upset them. And people were saying, take these redheads in again, but it was basically just demand and supply. We had too much of that stuff on our stock, so we would not take more in.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The negative reactions people had to Ole's comment - it's not just about redheads. They echo concerns about race and racism that have been just below the surface of the sperm banking industry since the beginning. When artificial insemination first became a thing in the early 20th century, eugenicists 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.

GONZALEZ: But when people use sperm banks, they are buying DNA. And there are genetic traits that come with that - hair color, eye color, skin color. And the families we spoke to for this story said, yeah, it can feel a little weird to sift through donors who have been categorized by what they look like and their education level and their medical history but that also, when the option is there, all those things can feel like important information for a big decision.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: For Ole and his sperm bank, it's more about simple supply and demand. And in 2001, he decides to come to the U.S. to export Danish sperm to America.

GONZALEZ: And he markets them as Viking babies, which, like, OK. But he opens a shop in Seattle.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Then, something seemingly unrelated happens in 2005 that changes Ole's whole business plan, something that felt a little bit like a trade war.

GONZALEZ: Europe had just said, we don't want to feed our cows with U.S. corn that is genetically modified, so they banned the import of genetically modified U.S. corn. And a month later, the U.S. says, we have things we want to ban from Europe, too, like human sperm. The U.S. said it could've been exposed to mad cow disease. And the ban is still in effect today. All these other countries can ship sperm to the U.S. - just not Europe.

SCHOU: That was the 25 May 2005. I remember that day. That was a catastrophe.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: So if Ole wanted to continue to supply U.S. families with sperm, he would need to collect U.S. sperm - no imports. So he opens up a place where people in the U.S. can now make deposits.

GONZALEZ: And he chooses the neighborhood that seems, like, so obvious for a bank.

SCHOU: Manhattan - Lower Manhattan district in the bank district, so...

(LAUGHTER)

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: You joined the other banks.

SCHOU: Yeah.

GONZALEZ: Right on Wall Street, OK.

SCHOU: But it was not a good idea to be there because there was not sufficient numbers of donors.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: A less altruistic crowd in Wall Street, potentially.

SCHOU: That's true.

GONZALEZ: The Wall Street crowd - not big donors, apparently. So Ole moves the sperm bank to Orlando, Fla., right next to the biggest university in the U.S. because he knows from Denmark that college students are big donors.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And collecting U.S. donations changed Ole's whole business because now he had all kinds of phenotypes.

SCHOU: Dark hair, brown eyes.

GONZALEZ: Dark skin.

SCHOU: Full range of all phenotypes - all colors, all sizes and hair color, eye color, so on.

GONZALEZ: Because, OK, the U.S. has all these different types of people. And once he had all these different phenotypes, he could supply 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 - they didn't have a big sperm donation industry. So Ole was like, I can send it to you, because Ole could still export sperm from the U.S. The ban was only on European sperm imports.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In some places, they shipped donor sperm in dry ice straight to people's homes. And he's supplying families in the U.S., too. And it's all these new markets that help Cryos become one of the biggest sperm banks in the world at around 1,300 donors.

GONZALEZ: Wait; 1,300 sperm donors doesn't actually seem like a lot of sperm donors.

SCHOU: Many sperm banks struggle to find donors, so many only have maybe 10, or even less. The biggest sperm bank in United States have about 500. So it is many.

GONZALEZ: These days, Ole says around 80% of Cryos' customers are same-sex couples, queer couples, single people. And demand from U.S. 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.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Outside of the U.S., many countries didn't give you much information about donors at all. They had a list of names, but that was kind of it.

SCHOU: It was only race and hair color, eye color, height and weight - nothing more.

GONZALEZ: And Americans were like, oh, no, no, no. We're going to need much more information than that.

SCHOU: Yeah, so they'd need - more is better. So we call that extended profile donors with 10 pages of personal information about the donors - baby photos or adult photos or psychological tests.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And these extended profiles are really helpful to people in other countries because some of their sperm banks aren't allowed to share information about donors. It's illegal.

GONZALEZ: So, like, Spain - you don't even get to choose your donor. A doctor does. And in France, legally, single moms and same-sex couples cannot get sperm. So Cryos ships sperm to Belgium, and people in France go to Belgium to pick it up.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: In Australia, donors cannot get paid. And in 2005, the country said they could no longer remain anonymous. And when that happened, the pool of donors shrunk.

MICHELLE HARTON: Yeah, there were more donors in Australia before they brought in that law. Yeah, definitely.

GONZALEZ: This is Michelle (ph).

HARTON: I'm Michelle Harton (ph), and I'm calling from Brisbane, Australia.

GONZALEZ: Michelle is one of our listeners, and she conceived her 6-year-old son using a sperm donor. She says her clinic in Australia only offered basic information about donors - eye color, hair color, height, no pictures. So she imported sperm from a bank in the U.S. - not Cryos, the Seattle Sperm Bank, which does offer extended profiles.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: It took her seven attempts to get pregnant. She tried five different donors. Each vial of sperm cost her $950 because she was paying for more information about the donors.

HARTON: I think I paid $100 for an all-access pass, and that allowed me to look at all of the donor's baby photos and read his personality profile and listen to an audio interview.

GONZALEZ: Oh, you got an audio interview.

HARTON: Yes. It was actually really valuable for me in the end because I was considering two profiles, and the one that I went with, who is ultimately the donor of my child, just sounded much more intelligent and well-spoken and more personable. The other one seemed really awkward when he spoke.

GONZALEZ: Were there any things you were looking for in particular?

HARTON: Yes, there was. I'm not sporty, and I'm not musical, so I went looking for a donor who had those traits in the hopes that my child would have a chance of being sporty or musical.

GONZALEZ: Is that genetic?

HARTON: I don't know if athleticism and musicality is genetic, but I thought I'm at least going to give my child a shot at having those talents. So I chose a donor who'd been a competitive gymnast as a child and was a swimmer in college, and he was part of a band and played a whole range of instruments. And my child is the least sporty child on the planet with zero coordination, so he takes after me, so it didn't work at all.

GONZALEZ: 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.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Ole Schou, the Danish sperm banker, retired from Cryos International last year.

GONZALEZ: Do you have any idea how many people you've helped...

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Create?

GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. Or, like, how many families you've helped?

SCHOU: Yeah. We estimate, for the time being, we have about 75,000 offspring.

GONZALEZ: Seventy-five thousand offspring.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN WILLIAM CORNISH AND WIYAALA SONG, "AFRICAN TRAP")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: That's a - that's like a little city.

SCHOU: That's a quite big city, actually.

GONZALEZ: Maybe in Denmark. In the U.S., it's not a big city (laughter).

SCHOU: Oh, yeah. Yeah. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN WILLIAM CORNISH AND WIYAALA SONG, "AFRICAN TRAP")

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Today's show was produced by Liza Yeager. Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer, and Bryant Urstadt edits the show. Special thanks to Sebastian Mohr, Rene Almeling and Peter Reeslev - also, Bianca Giacobone for fact-checking the episode.

GONZALEZ: Special thanks also to Ann Fountain (ph) and Alison Kohane (ph) for chatting with us so much about their experience with sperm donation. If you're a family that used a sperm donor and you want to send us pictures or videos or voice recordings of your kids, tweet at us, tag us on Instagram. We'd love to see them. We are @planetmoney.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Or you can email us, planetmoney@npr.org.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And I'm Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

SCHOU: We're actually trying to develop a method where women can not just see the extended profiles and photos in extended profile but also be together with the donor in a virtual way, augmented reality way, so you can walk hand-in-hand on the beach or have candlelight dinners or maybe even have intercourse online.

GONZALEZ: What? I tried to hold that in, but what? Oh, my gosh. I mean, I can see the value of wanting to meet the person.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: At least talk to them.

GONZALEZ: Yeah.

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