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Sperm banks discover marketing, offer choices


When 35-year-old Roxane Helstrom was shopping for sperm a year ago, she and her husband turned to their trusty catalog and, after some debate, selected Sperm Donor No. 522 -- a blond, blue-eyed student whose interests include filmmaking and writing.

"Bob was absolutely looking for the closest mirror of himself," Mrs. Helstrom said of her blond, blue-eyed husband, who is interested in filmmaking and writing. "I looked at it in terms of some level of intrigue.

"I was drawn to taller. I was intrigued by the thought of a dark man. I guess I wanted to play around more than he did. There was a Chinese-Swedish Ph.D. in molecular biology who sounded fascinating," said Mrs. Helstrom, a Dallas financial executive who, by this time, had undergone three unsuccessful inseminations using her husband's sperm.

"You think about your own physical traits and what would make an interesting blend. It's the ultimate in genetic engineering."

Welcome to sperm shopping, '90s-style.

The marketing of sperm for artificial insemination has become so sophisticated that many sperm banks routinely offer shopping catalogs that detail the vital statistics of their anonymous donors. Some banks provide more comprehensive information upon request. Among the more common questions: Does he wear glasses? Is he bow-legged? Is he athletic? What's his favorite color?

"You can choose your donor a lot more carefully than you choose your husband," said Steve Broder, technical director of California Cryobank in Los Angeles. "Hey, everything else you can purchase by catalog. Why not a baby?"

In Fairfax, Va., the December issue of Fairfax Cryobank's Who's Who of sperm donors lists dozens of candidates: a 6-foot-2-inch business management student of Spanish and Swedish descent who likes karate, painting and cars; a computer programmer of Japanese and German parentage who enjoys sports and horses; and a black financial planner whose interests include sports, jazz and social activism.

At the Repository for Germinal Choice, a bank for "high-achievement donors" in Escondido, Calif., one young donor described as "ruggedly handsome" with an "impressive presence." He also has a 152-plus IQ, he's accomplished at judo, and he played chess at age 4.

"Sounds like 'The Dating Game' doesn't it?" noted Jeanne C. Mowe, executive director of the American Association of Tissue Banks, a McLean, Va. organization that develops industry standards for sperm banks, among others.

"I think it's pretty wild, frankly. It boggles the mind. You wonder why people bother having their own when they can have the perfect child this way."

Some in the 20-year-old sperm bank business, which is not federally regulated, believe the marketing end of the industry has gone too far.

"There are some banks who do marketing -- some I think who do too much marketing," said J. K. Sherman, chairman of the American Association of Tissue Banks Reproductive Council and director of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Semen Cryobank in Little Rock.

"I fear in some cases it transcends professionalism," he added. "There should be a minimum of marketing and more professionalism."

Most sperm banks are near university campuses, which provide the students who account for the vast majority of paid donors.

Commercial donors generally are paid $15 to $35 per ejaculation, which is frozen in liquid nitrogen and stored.

"We try to screen the donors so that they don't have real bulbous noses or anything else too outlandish. We try for run-of-the-mill, average-looking people," said Sheila Peterson, a nurse who heads the artificial insemination program at Ann Arbor Reproductive Medicine Associates in Michigan.

"We emphasize from the start that we're not giving you your husband, and you have to resolve that right now. Still, it's uncanny how many bring their child back and just how much they look like their husbands."

The banks declined to identify women who have purchased the sperm, citing confidentiality. Most women who are artificially inseminated prefer to keep the matter private.

Industry standards designed by the American Association of Tissue Banks Reproductive Council include rigorous screening for sexually transmitted diseases, the human immunodeficiency virus, genetic diseases and other health disorders. About a dozen states, including Maryland, have enacted laws regulating sperm banks, and the Food and Drug Administration has begun to craft rules that eventually will apply to the industry.

The only national survey ever conducted on artificial insemination, undertaken by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment in 1987, estimated that 172,000 women were inseminated in a 12-month period spanning 1986 and 1987. (A husband's sperm is believed to be used in most inseminations.) Those inseminations resulted in approximately 65,000 births.

While most insemination procedures are overseen by physicians as Mrs. Helstrom's was -- some are conducted at home in private, a practice the American Association of Tissue Banks does not condone. While most sperm banks deal solely with physicians or fertility clinics, some are reported to have sold sperm directly to the buyer.

In a follow-up questionnaire to Sperm Donor No. 522, Mrs. Helstrom asked the philosophy student just why he wanted to be a donor. "For the same reason I'm an organ donor," he responded. "It seems senseless to waste something that could help someone else. And heck, it's more fun than giving blood."

The response was enough for the Helstroms to reject their first choice.

"I didn't like him," Mrs. Helstrom said.

The extensive donor profile that Mrs. Helstrom had sought from California Cryobank had arrived one day over her office fax machine. "That sort of made it all the more surreal," she said. "Imagine standing in your office and watching 50 percent of your child arrive over the fax."

As it turned out, the Helstroms -- both of whom had had periodimedical conditions that undermined pregnancy efforts -- last year abandoned plans to try for a child.

"We said to each other that living together the rest of our livewithout children would be fine," Mrs. Helstrom said. "We could live with that."

Last summer, after undergoing three years of various fertility procedures, Mrs. Helstrom got pregnant, as she put it, "the old-fashioned way. After all this time, and all the heartache, we managed to do it ourselves."

3' Zoe Helstrom will be born in April.

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