Growing technical advances and societal views have made it possible for many people to reproduce, who might not have been able to otherwise.
Although there are certainly financial barriers that keep people from accessing reproductive technologies like in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI), it certainly does level the playing field a bit.
With more and more people turning towards science in order to make babies, there are many different schools of thought around the ethics of different approaches.
One topic in the world of reproductive health that’s gotten more attention lately is “smart sperm.”
What in the World is Smart Sperm?
In the United States, an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 births each year are from donated sperm. Lack of regulation around sperm donation, however, makes that number nearly impossible to determine.
All sperm may seem more or less equal depending on someone’s health and viability.
Well… not according to the rising market for what people are calling “smart sperm.”
Smart sperm comes from people that are deemed more intelligent than the average person. This is measured by their family history, IQ tests, their careers and accomplishments, and other factors that society traditionally deems “smart”.
Many of these sperm banks are nearby prestigious universities, and often even recruit on campus.
There’s even been a rise of private groups, often through Facebook and other new sperm donation apps, where people can connect with so-called “sperm kings”. This is an unregulated place where people donate their highly sought-after sperm without being compensated.
In these groups, you’ll often find people boasting about their personality and achievements, basically why they’re considered smart sperm.
These methods raise questions about the lack of regulation around how the sperm is transported, and potential legal issues if the donor chose to pursue custody or be involved in the child’s life somehow.
At the same time, these private donors also make sperm accessible to people who can’t necessarily afford the high prices of sperm banks and fertility treatments. These people are still able to create their own legal agreements and get them notarized on their own.
In the case of private donors, it’s even more important to consider such ethical questions as what information the children will have about the donor (if any), if the children will be allowed to contact the donor (if they’d like to), the impact on the partner and children of the donor and much more.
The rise of easily accessible DNA tests has made privacy even more difficult.
Why Do People Choose Smart Sperm?
There are already a lot of ethical concerns around sperm donation. Some banks have a donor height requirement of 1.8m or taller, leaving out much of the population. They also historically only accept sperm from white, cis-heterosexual men.
When people go through a sperm bank, there is typically an intense screening process. These screenings often test for family medical history, sexually transmitted infections, drug usage, and genetic disorders. Along with further screening from fertility clinics if someone goes the IVF route.
So, why do people choose smart sperm?
The easy answer is that they want their kids to be smart. They believe that using “smart sperm” will increase their chances to have a child who is successful, whatever that means to them.
If they’re using sperm donation, they have to make a choice anyway, so why not choose the best match for them?
Although this seems iffy, it comes down to people wanting the best for their potential children.
What’s in It for the Donors?
You may be wondering why someone would choose to donate their sperm.
It varies from person to person, but these are the most common motivators:
- Money: You cannot technically pay for human tissue in the U.S., but there’s a loophole where sperm banks can offer compensation for time and travel, of which there’s no financial limit. Some donors can make thousands of dollars within a few months by donating to sperm banks.
In some places like England and Australia, it’s outright illegal to pay sperm donors.
- Knowledge: Donors who choose to go the private route get to know who they’re donating to, and have a relationship with them if all parties want that.
This can give them some peace of mind about knowing where their valuable tissue is going.
- They want their genes to survive: They may not see themselves having kids the traditional way, but still believe their genes should continue.
- Altruism: While it’s hard to determine what’s true altruism, many of these donors just want to help people start families who may not have many other options.
Nature vs Nurture
If you took basic biology, you might be wondering just how reliable this smart sperm is.
This brings up the classic nature vs nurture debate.
Does using smart sperm really make a difference when it comes to the intelligence of the offspring?
Probably a bit, but there’s a lot more to the story.
People who seek out smart sperm may be more inclined to raise their future children in an environment that fosters their intelligence and creativity.
It’s also important to consider the fact that access to resources doesn’t necessarily equate to intelligence.
In the U.S. where college is extremely expensive, and there is often bureaucracy underlying who does and doesn’t get into certain schools, the people with more privilege are the ones that tend to go to prestigious schools.
They are also then the same people who tend to get high-earning “intelligent” jobs.
That doesn’t necessarily make them smarter.
You can’t isolate socio-economic factors from sperm donation. It’s all connected.
You also can’t isolate nature from nurture. So, it’s impossible to determine what actually makes a “smart person.”
The Right to Choose
We can hypothesize and go back and forth endlessly, but at the end of the day, this comes down to choice.
Reproductive choice. Which is a central tenant in many conversations around reproductive health and justice.
If someone chooses to have a baby via sperm donor, it’s ultimately up to them what sperm they choose and why.
Natasha (she/her) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @natasha.s.weiss.