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The Designer Babies Are Growing Up : At Home With the First Children of the 'Genius' Sperm Bank

November 01, 1987|KATHARINE LOWRY | Katharine Lowry has written for GQ, Vogue and Texas Monthly.

NO ONE PICKETS outside the Nobel sperm bank in Escondido anymore. Its once-controversial deposits--the sperm of Nobel Prize winners and others possessing high IQs--now stir little more interest than the deposits of the Pacific Coast Savings bank next door.

Seven years ago, they did. The opening of the world's first unabashedly exclusive sperm bank--designed to pull humanity up by its DNA strands by creating better and brighter babies--was an anti-egalitarian shock heard 'round the world. Outside the Repository for Germinal Choice, as it is officially called, protesters raised the specter of Hitlerian master-race eugenics. Their outrage had intensified because Nobelist William Shockley, a vocal believer in the genetic inferiority of blacks, was revealed to be a repository donor. Overnight, the quiet little town, whose Spanish name means "hidden," was invaded by a phalanx of journalists and television-news crews.

The bank's founder, an aristocratic physicist named Robert Klark Graham who made millions on his invention of a shatterproof lens for glasses, was unperturbed. Well aware that no one agreed with Darwin either, at first, he went on about the repository's nonprofit business, confident that time would turn the tide of opinion his way.

It has, to a degree, thanks to the constantly escalating advances of modern medicine. Artificial insemination, which now produces more than 20,000 babies a year, has become widely accepted--just a step removed from natural childbirth in contrast to test-tube babies, in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood. The same critics who once raised moral questions about Graham's selective-breeding techniques are now preoccupied with far-reaching new developments in gene mapping, genetic engineering and early prenatal testing. In a world in which parents can learn so much so soon about their unborn child's genetic makeup that they can legally abort the pregnancy and try for a better genetic "mix" the next time, Graham's method of "intelligent selection," as he calls it, seems relatively benign.

Although the controversy surrounding his "genius" sperm bank has faded, Graham's brainchild has revolutionized the lives of a few once-childless parents. With some of the 41 babies produced by the sperm bank now out of the diaper stage, it's still too soon to tell the fate of Graham's ambitious, and to many, troubling, dream: no less than the creation of what he calls a "secular savior," an individual who could yank our earthly spaceship of fools out of its self-destructive orbit before it's too late. Meanwhile, it is possible to see the early results of Graham's aim of producing brainy, productive, creative children, and to pose a few questions: Are these babies really smarter than the offspring of a typical bright couple? If they are, is it nature or nurture that makes them so? And, is brighter really better? Since it took a genius to create the atom bomb, are we foolish to assume another genius can defuse it?

There are ethical questions as well: Even with this comparatively innocuous form of eugenics, there is always a risk of abuse, if only on an individual level. Says child psychologist Lee Salk: "I'm not sure that any of these children will grow up to be geniuses--or even grow up to be happy. Parents so concerned with achievement and intellect could have a tendency to smother and indulge their child too much on the one hand, while pressuring them with exorbitant demands on the other." (In fact, one repository mother was found to have lost custody of two non-sperm-bank children years earlier because of her relentless and abusive demands for perfection.)

But to the overjoyed parents of these current healthy hybrids, such questions are academic. Many of them are so thrilled, in fact, that they're planning a second baby. The repository's work has just begun.

Still, the proliferation of exclusive sperm banks such as Graham's is a barometer of what some see as a disturbing trend. As author and scientific gadfly Jeremy Rifkin warned at a recent symposium on the ethical questions posed by this genetic revolution, "a new eugenics has slipped in the back door. We not only want perfect plants and animals, we want perfect babies. And while there's no evil intent here, the road to the Brave New World is paved with good intentions."

ANNE ANDJEFF Bradley (not their real names) are a San Diego couple in their early 30s. Though their family and friends don't know that 16-month-old Ashley is only half theirs, genetically speaking, Anne feels obligated to help publicize the repository's good works, if only to counter what she sees as unfair early publicity. She agrees to sit for an interview after leaving the graphic-design firm she works for and picking up Ashley at a nearby child-care center.

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