February 17, 2003

Spotlight On: In Search of Sperm and Eggs

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“Egg Donor Needed … Compensation $10,000 plus expenses,” said an ad in The Sun last week.

Maybe you’ve seen ads similar to this one. If you check the classifieds and peruse the 1/8 and 1/16th page ads in your local college newspaper you might see ads just like these.

“Stanford student wanted for sperm donor. $15k offered. Intelligent, good looking, over 6 ft. tall. No history of self or family addictions,” said an ad in the Palo Alto Daily News.

These ads have become if not standard at least prominent in campus newspapers. The most famous was a series of ads run in Ivy League newspapers in 1999 offering $50,000 for a suitable egg donor.

The ad was specific and sought certain criteria such as 5 feet 10, at least an SAT score of 1400, and other particulars. Over 200 hundred women responded to the ad. It was later revealed that the wife of the couple seeking donors had graduated from an Ivy League school and was merely seeking a close proximity of herself.

Do a search on the internet and you’ll find that there is a significant market for Ivy League egg and sperm donors. One company, Tiny Treasures, located in Massachusetts, offers “Extraordinary Ivy League [Egg] Donors”. These are recent women Ivy League graduates who are offering their eggs for $8000 to $15000.

“I think it’s unbelievable, and kind of strange, although hard to compare,” said Jessica Lucent spokesperson for the New England Cyrobank Center, located in Cambridge, Mass., when asked to comment on the recent trend of high priced offers for donations.

East Coast Assisted Parenting, of Pennsylvania has a very similar “Exceptional Egg/Sperm Donors” database. They state that they “Encourage college students to apply”.

Criteria for their elite donor program listed on their website are, “Tested exceptionally high for IQ test (over 125), Candidates who completed PhD in either Science, Mathematics, Computer Science, Literature, Psychology, Art or Music, Medical and Law students (graduates), Ivy League Students (graduates).”

The ad and the general trend beg a number of ethical questions. Many people question the morality of selling one’s biological assets.

Professor Michael Goldberg who teaches a human genetics course here at Cornell, said, “The only argument against this [trend] is that it is commodifying life, but that is a rather abstract idea. These are adult people making decisions.”

The trend is not limited to women as the Stanford ad indicates; elite male students are vigorously recruited to donate their sperm. Women are however, often paid much higher then men due to the difficulties in obtaining their eggs.

Women must take a series of medications meant to induce hyperactivity in the ovaries so that more than one egg can be extracted at a time. Women donors are highly medicated and must be monitored very carefully.

Many of the country’s sperm banks, or cryobanks are located near college campuses. This is no coincidence. Cryobanks actively recruit students and more often than not, these are students at the most selective universities.

California Cyrobank, headquartered in Los Angeles, has a branch office in Cambridge, Mass, where they recruit Harvard and MIT students for sperm donations. Marla Eby, a company spokesperson, said that the majority of clients have exhausted all other resources before resorting to artificial insemination via donor.

“Most clients have spent 1000’s of dollars on hi-tech procedures and are totally infertile,” she said.

The process of donating is not a simple one of just walking in the door and handing over a sample. Applicants are screened for various STDs, they have a full medical examination and a three generation medical history is closely examined for genetic defects.

Only 3 to 5 percent of applicants are finally approved; a similar percentage of women donors meet final qualification standards. Depending on the sperm bank, donors are required to consent to from anywhere between six months to up to a 2 year obligation. During that period, they will be asked to donate 2 to 3 times a week, and for quality purposes, they are asked to remain abstinent. Women usually donate for a period of six months in which each period of ovulation 10-15 eggs will be extracted.

Pay scales for sperm differ among banks. Fairfax Cryobank gives up $200 depending on the quality of the specimen and the size of the aliquot. Other banks such as California Cryobank give $75 per sample with a policy of no differentiation in pay.

Because of the time commitment and the steady pay, most students and banks consider donating sperm a part time job, one that can pull in about 400 to 900 dollars a month.

Fairfax will also however give slightly more for well educated donors. “Doctorate candidates are paid more. It is definitely a scale of how much we want the donor,” said Suzanne Seitz, Fairfax Cryobank spokesperson.

“The doctorate list is growing and sells better than anything else”, she said.

Fairfax also deals with egg donors. Seitz, speaking of the ads for egg donors, said, “Couples are very interested in finding woman who are intelligent and that really is not too surprising. If [the parents] have a choice they will try to give their child an advantage.”

This is where the moral ambiguity becomes very complex. A Commonweal Magazine editorial in 1999 said of this trend, “when it comes to the commercialization of human reproduction and the marketing of human eggs, we are fast returning to a world where persons carry a price tag, and where the cash values of some persons(or at least of their genetic “endowment”) is far greater than that of others.”

Many critics point out that a Ivy League genes do not guarantee smart offspring.

As Jay Dixit recently said, in a Salon editorial, “It all involves a roll of the genetic dice. The human genome is far too complex for a ‘what you see is what you get’ principle.'”

Lucent said that education is one of many criteria that they look for in donors. All of the sperm banks said that clients often seek close facsimiles of themselves, and thus aesthetics are equally important if not more than intelligence or from what school the donor graduated.

She says that there are 3 types of women who will decide on artificial insemination: infertile couples, single mothers by choice, or women couples.

In reference to the active recruitment of elite students Lucent said, “We are in a great geographical location in the sense of quality of young intelligent people.”

For all the debating many remain ambivalent.

An anonymous Cornell student, responding to the trend, said, “It’s a great way to make money.”

Prof. Goldberg said, “I don’t understand the motivation for egg and sperm donation, but beyond that I don’t see why it’s any one’s business as long as there is a strong contractual relationship between donor and recipient.”

Archived article by Michael Margolis