Sperm Banks Go Online

Three years ago Carrie Kaufman, 39, and her partner, 54-year-old Connie Dix, started looking for a father for the baby they hoped to have. They knew they wanted him to be tall, smart and well educated. So they combed through cryobank.com, the Web site of California Cryobank, which helps match the 200 sperm donors posted on any given day with women who want to become pregnant. Kaufman and Dix found their dream guy: an anonymous Ph.D. neuroscientist who's 6 feet 5 inches, 205 pounds, with blue eyes, brown hair and an "enthusiastic voice" that they heard when they downloaded an audiotape. The sperm arrived in Chicago last March, via FedEx, in a vacuum tank that "looked like R2-D2," says Kaufman.

Nine months later, Kaufman delivered twin girls, Delaney and Dixon. In all, Kaufman and Dix spent about $5,400 buying sperm online, including shipping and other charges (such as $30 for that audiotape). They purchased 20 ampules--single insemination doses--from three different donors at a cost of $250 per ampule. (California Cryobank pays donors $75 for each deposit.) The couple tried 11 times to get pregnant--first with artificial insemination and ultimately with in vitro fertilization. "The whole process is hard," Kaufman says. The Internet "makes it a little easier."

Add "daddy" to the ever-expanding list of stuff available online. Thanks to the Web, what were once intensely private transactions are now routine retail exchanges in an open marketplace where consumers shop for sperm much the way they shop for cars. And business is booming. Cappy Rothman, medical director of California Cryobank, the world's largest sperm bank, estimates that Americans bought about $45 million worth of frozen sperm (and related services) on the Internet last year.

That's 70 percent of the $65 million Rothman estimates was spent on sperm-bank services in the United States. Fairfax Cryobank in Fairfax, Va., which says it's No. 2 in the business, claims 1,000 visitors a day to its Web site, while Xytex, an Atlanta-based sperm bank, reports more than 20,000 unique viewers on its site each month. "To be able to search on the Internet across different sperm banks is so radically different from the old days," says clinical social worker Carol Frost Vercollone, author of "Helping the Stork." Before, "your doctor located a medical student who was willing to donate on the day you were ovulating. Now if your ethnic heritage is important, you can search the whole country" for the right donor.

The sperm trade is ideally suited to the Net, which eliminates geographical boundaries, offers anonymity for those who want it (most donors) and provides for almost limitless marketing opportunities. There are 110 sperm banks currently operating in the United States, and the major players have set up Web sites. Before the Web became popular, sperm banks had to depend primarily on doctors to send them business. Now consumers are the rainmakers. The Web provides "instant gratification," says Jason Schlegel, marketing director of Xytex.

Browsing through online donor catalogs is as simple as checking out Gap.com. The most coveted donors are college students or college-educated men who are also tall, have brown or blond hair, blue or green eyes, a medium complexion and a medium build. Dimples are also popular, says Rothman. The Web allows for easy dissemination of essential information, such as family history of heart disease, cancer, depression, alcoholism and other conditions. But caveat emptor. While individual states regulate medical matters such as the testing of donor sperm for HIV and other STDs, donor selection and the accuracy of donor profiles are the responsibility of the sperm banks; a donor may say he went to Stanford and has a golfing handicap of 5, but there's no way to know for sure. It's up to consumers to find a company they trust, as Kaufman and Dix did when they put their faith in California Cryobank, which has had nearly half a million clients since 1976.

Sperm-bank Web sites offer many options to attract buyers. For example, they let women know whether a man has agreed to be contacted when his offspring turn 18. (These "yes" or identity-release donors are in much demand.) In January, Xytex started offering conference calls with donors for groups of as many as 10 women who pay $65 each to submit questions in advance and then hear the answers live. All of this helps women feel more comfortable using donor sperm, says reproductive endocrinologist Robert Bryski, president of the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technologies. "It's like any business," says Brent Hazelrigg, program director of Fairfax Cryobank. "One company sees what another is doing, and they'll copy that."

Except for state rules about testing, sperm banks are unregulated. That can be a good thing, but combined with the loosey-goosey nature of the Net, it worries University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Arthur Caplan. "You're buying some guy saying, 'I'm a great athlete, and I'm particularly strong.' Is that because they take steroids?" he says. "I know it looks in some way kind of neat to buy the recipe for your child, but genetics isn't everything." The FDA has proposed a set of guidelines to prevent the spread of disease, but they haven't taken effect. Even when they do, buyers will still be forced to rely on the honesty of the donors and the credibility of the sperm banks.

Carrie Kaufman believed her donor. There's at least one sign that her faith was well placed: the twins were born with their mom's--and dad's--blue eyes.