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Of Male Immortality and Man's Ultimate Mission

November 18, 2001|JAMES RICCI

War is always good for the immortality market. with some men dying and others certain to, religious and patriotic orators inevitably assure us that the honored dead will live on in heaven, or at least in the hearts and minds of fellow citizens and co-religionists. This sort of immortality, however, is a little on the iffy side. Fortunately, a more tangible, genuinely biological immortality already is available to men, at sperm banks. Sperm banks are not only places of male immortality, but also shrines to perspective on maleness itself. California Cryobank, the country's largest, will store any man's sperm. In half a dozen large, round, squat tanks filled with liquid nitrogen, something like 36 trillion live sperm slumber at minus-321 degrees Fahrenheit in about 600,000 ampules. Roughly half of this is from men who've chosen to preserve sperm for their own purposes. If these are the bank's ordinary enlistees, the contributors of the other half, the anonymous donors, are a kind of Delta Force of elite reproducers.

The ultimate maleness of a man who applies to be an anonymous donor is writ on a tiny grid under a microscope that magnifies his semen specimen 200 times. An examiner hand counts the number of sperm in any 10 consecutive horizontal or vertical squares, and assesses how many are moving, and how energetically. Magnifying a specimen 1,000 times, and using purple stain to increase visibility, the examiner calculates how many of the sperm are badly formed by virtue of having double heads, double tails, twisted tails and other abnormalities.

To be accepted as an anonymous donor, a man must meet or exceed the normal quotient of 400 million sperm per ejaculation (the cryobank has seen some that approach a billion). Whereas a typical specimen will show about 60% of sperm to be motile, donors' specimens must demonstrate at least 70% motility. Similarly, in a typically normal specimen, 40% of sperm will be ill-formed; for donors, only 30% may be. Applicants must also survive a vetting of their family medical history.

Only three or four of every 100 men who apply to be anonymous donors are found, so to speak, to be man enough, despite the fact that applicants tend to be in full youthful vigor. Donors are paid $50 per donation, and typically provide specimens two or three times a week for a year or two. In addition to its unsigned brick building in Westwood near UCLA, the company has facilities close to Stanford University in Palo Alto, and in Cambridge, Mass., between Harvard University and MIT, places, says cryobank co-founder Dr. Cappy Rothman, "where there are a lot of bright, young, healthy men who can use the money."

The aggregate preferences of women who come to the cryobank to select anonymous donors (clients pay about $200 per vial and are inseminated by their own physicians) determine which are the most desirable. Although Californina Cryobank has donors of every race, faith and physical type, the invisible hand of the market has anointed as reproductively most desirable, statistically speaking, a man who is 6 feet tall, with brown or blond hair and green or blue eyes, a medium complexion, a medium build, a college education and dimples. "We want as many donors like that as we can get," Rothman says.

Rothman estimates that over the 30 years of its existence, California Cryobank has shipped 600,000 ampules of anonymous sperm to all the American states and 30 countries. If a fourth of those have resulted in successful pregnancies--what Rothman calls a conservative estimate--it would mean that the approximately 9,000 anonymous donors who've been in the program have fathered something like 150,000 of Earth's inhabitants, an average of 17 apiece.

Since the onset of the current conflict, California Cryobank has been offering American military men a special deal. It will discount processing fees and store their sperm free for one year, the latter a $265 value.

Thus, though a man die in the Afghanistan dust, his life force may abide, potentially forever, perhaps even providing his wife with additional babies and his children with more siblings.

Obviously, the company's offer, however altruistically motivated, is also a way of drumming up a bit of business. Nonetheless, it's a reminder, welcome in the current atomsphere of anxiety and bellicosity, that men exist ultimately to contribute to the continuation of the species, to create life, not destroy it. As of a recent count, a handful of military men have taken up the cryobank's offer, clearly demonstrating that, come what may, they're determined to accomplish their ultimate mission.

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