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Slate's Assessment: Sperm Banks and Gay Sex

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

More now on the politics of sperm banks, and we turn to David Plotz. He's Slate's deputy editor, and he's the author of an upcoming book about the sperm bank industry. It's called "The Genius Factory."

David, welcome back to DAY TO DAY.

DAVID PLOTZ (Author, "The Genius Factory"; Slate's Deputy Editor): Thanks, Alex.

CHADWICK: You know, homosexuality's a major topic in the culture wars. Do you agree with these people who Alix cites at the end of her report who say this is really poor science, but it's not about politics? Is there more than pure science here?

PLOTZ: I don't think there's a plot of some conservatives upset about the gay sperm donors who are trying to keep them out of sperm banks around the country. I think what it reflects is bad and sort of archaic science. These regulations were conceived in the late '80s and early '90s, and I think the notion of letting gay sperm donors in at that period, when there was much less known about HIV, there was much more paranoia about transmission, has sort of carried forth. And they've gone the most stringent and, in this case, massively overstringent regulations, which really apply to other kinds of tissue, tissue which is used fresh but really doesn't apply to something like sperm, which you can freeze and quarantine and then retest a donor a month later for HIV.

CHADWICK: This is largely a for-profit industry. I wonder how the market has dealt with the general issue of gay sperm donors.

PLOTZ: The sperm bank industry is a very interesting industry because it's one of the widest open markets in the medical business. It's a really crazily free-market system, and as a result I think it's incredibly sensitive to consumer demand. If you imagine buying a DVD player and, you know, how much care you take to buy your DVD player, now imagine you wanted that DVD player to live with you for 18 years and to take care of you in your old age and to, you know, bear your grandchildren, you know, somebody who...

CHADWICK: I can imagine there'd be a lot of people--really want to know exactly what's in this bank.

PLOTZ: So I think that consumers are very, very demanding. They insist on lots of choices, they insist on very rigorous health standards and, also, they insist on donors that meet their particular demands. And so while most sperm banks don't have gay sperm donors because most people seeking sperm don't want gay donors, there are a couple of sperm banks in California that cater significantly to lesbian couples who--and some of them do seek to have gay donors, and these banks, you know, serve them extremely healthy, well-tested, very safe, gay sperm donors. So it's a case where the market has really worked.

CHADWICK: This book of yours, "The Genius Factor," is about a so-called Nobel Prize-winner sperm bank. In your research, did you find that people who use sperm banks are generally getting what they think they're getting?

PLOTZ: I think they are generally getting what they want to get. Now there are some glaring exceptions to that. The most notorious exception, of course, is a case from the late 1980s involving a Virginia fertility doctor known as the "Sperminator" named Cecil Jacobson. And Dr. Jacobson was caught giving his own sperm to lots of his patients rather than the sperm that they expected to get, which was frozen sperm from various different kinds of donors.

But I do think that because this is a very market-driven industry and because consumers are so picky that banks have to be incredibly careful about where they're getting their donors and they're incredibly rigorous about making sure those donors are who they say they are. Now that, of course, doesn't mean that they get the children that they want, because there's so much serendipity in it, but the banks make sure that the donors at least live up to what they're advertised as being.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Slate's David Plotz. He's the author of "The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank." It's going to be published next month.

Thank you, David.

PLOTZ: Thanks, Alex.

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CHADWICK: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.