A Sperm Donor Who Looks Like Matt Damon (Fertility, Part 1)

The basement of the Cryobank in Fairfax does not look all that different from a hobby brewery. Except that the stainless steel barrels don’t contain beer but nitrogen. They feed big white tanks to keep the temperature at below – 275 °F (-170 °C). And though these tanks look like refrigerators, they don’t store frozen pizza but frozen sperm.

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© 2015 Jason Andrew

It is hard to believe at first that one of the biggest sperm banks in the United States would fit into this dark and narrow basement room. But then again, sperm don’t need a lot of space: 12 disks fit in every box, each disk is divided in seven slices, numbered A through G – and the staff do call them pizza slices. Each holds 95 vials.

“We have a sellable inventory of about 400 donors,” said Michelle Ottey, the director of operations. Dr. Ottey chuckled at her own expression – but it is true that in this business park just outside of Washington, D.C., sperm is a product, patients are customers, and supply and demand rule the market.

I visited Fairfax Cryobank for a Capital story about the global fertility business, to which my colleague Marina Zapf contributed the European part. The market for reproductive medicine is huge and growing all around the world – but it is probably the biggest in the U.S. where patients have a lot more choices when compared to much more strictly regulated European countries.

Part 2 and 3 of this Flying Carpet mini series will deal with topics that are still quite exotic for German readers: Egg cell donations and gestational carriers  – both of which are necessary if homosexual men want babies.

Lesbian couples benefit from the fact that sperm banks are ubiquitous nowadays. When the Fairfax Cryobank was first set up, the majority of its “customers” were heterosexual couples with infertility issues. Today, single women and Lesbian couples represent the majority. The donors who check in at a the reception on the ground floor of the building that houses the Cryobank are a carefully selected crowd. They have been screened for general health, sperm count and family history.

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© 2015 Jason Andrew

Oh, and looks matter. The donor bios on the website include audio recordings and childhood photos and read like online dating profiles. They point out resemblances to Hollywood actors. Would you prefer your son to look like Matt Damon or Keanu Reeves? Intelligence is another valued commodity: “We try to recruit donors with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree,” said Dr. Ottey. “Our recipients are very educated and they look for donors that reflect their values, their interests, and their background.”

The customer friendly marketing is similar to what Marina found at Cryos International, the world’s largest sperm bank in Denmark. In Germany, sperm recipients get much more sober, basic information about the donors. However, in Germany, by law the offspring would always have the right to find out who the donor was at age 18. In Fairfax, despite the large amount of personal information available, the donor’s identity may only be revealed if donor and recipients specifically choose this option.

Listen to Michelle Ottey explain how donors are screened, how sperm is prepared, and what the sperm bank has to consider when selling to other countries.

Dr. Michelle Ottey of the Genetics and IVF Institute, poses for a portrait

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