Sending Sperm Abroad

When I tell you the United States is sending a lot of semen abroad, I’m not talking about sailors.

There’s talk that America can’t make anything anymore. The rest of the world doesn’t respect our goods and services. The French bomb McDonald’s. Asia now controls vast sectors of the international high-tech business. Our foreign-trade deficit has ballooned to a record annual rate of $425 billion.

But whatever economic problems America may have, we can at least raise our fists and tell the world with pride that we are the No. 1 exporter of human sperm.

That’s right; the French may be the leading authorities on romance, and the Latin Americans may take pride in their machismo, but foreigners are nonetheless buying our semen. Four of the five largest sperm banks are based in the United States, and they control an estimated 65 percent of a burgeoning international business believed to be worth between $50 million to $100 million.

That’s chump change to a hard-core macroeconomist, and to be sure, I’m not suggesting sperm dollars will ever be able to correct the trade balance or make up for all the foreign-manufactured DVD players we’re importing. But this is a psychological boost that we Americans should savor.

Squiggling to Canada

While former Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole has taken to the airways to talk about erectile dysfunction, and Hollywood stars are pumping up with steroids and human growth hormones, it’s nice to know this country can still produce in one area where it counts. And in great quantities.

Yes, American sperm is squiggling into Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East at record levels. In recent weeks, Canada has announced that it has a sperm shortage, and it will be turning primarily to the United States for help.

How’d that happen? An inspection of Canadian fertility clinics last year — ordered after a woman who received semen from a sperm bank became infected with chlamydia — uncovered widespread irregularities in the mandatory testing of semen samples.

Now 35 of Canada’s 49 sperm banks and clinics have been ordered to quarantine some or all of their sperm, leaving an inadequate supply for the 2,000 women and infertile couples expected to seek assistance this year.

“The stocks have decreased dramatically,” fertility specialist Roger Pierson, president of the Canadian Fertility and Adrology Society, told Reuters.

Much of that demand is now being met by U.S. firms, Pierson said, because they can adhere to the tougher new standards.

“It’s an opportunity for us. Right now, we are having trouble keeping up with demand,” says David Towles, spokesman for Xytex Corp. in Atlanta, a major U.S. sperm bank. A third of all Xytex’s foreign orders come from Canada, and the company recently opened a subsidiary in Toronto.

According to the World Trade Center Institute in Baltimore, a private, nonprofit trade promotion group, the export of human glands and secretions to Canada topped $1.5 million in the first nine months of 2000, up 139 percent compared to the same period the previous year.

Towles estimates that in the next year, Canadians will be plunking down $3 million to $5 million for high-grade, U.S. sperm.

Spermatozoa With a Pedigree

Now let’s define “high grade.” The means the sperm has been screened for disease, has a high level of motility (that is, they swim fast enough to reach their target), and comes with background information on the donor.

This reporter was saddened to learn that despite being in excellent health and holding two master’s degrees from an Ivy League university, he is at least an inch and a half too short to donate highly desirable sperm. How humbling.

Although I didn’t make the height requirement (you have to be at least 5-foot-8) it might have made a difference if I were a classically trained musician or a medical doctor. (Advanced degrees in journalism don’t count.) Xytex claims only about one in 10 men make the grade.

“People are very choosy,” Towles says. “We’ve had requests for Brad Pitt’s semen.”

Celebrities and politicians have used Xytex’s services, although Towles can’t name names. And while folks can be very specific in their requests, you can’t yet purchase sperm of the stars.

However, if you want a donation from a blue-eyed, 6-foot, blond doctor who is Catholic and likes the outdoors, many sperm banks can deliver. And that’s one reason U.S. sperm banks have a competitive advantage.

“America is a big country, with a diverse population. It’s easier for us to get what people want than for competitors in homogenous countries,” Towles says.

The Laissez-Faire Semen Trade

You might think foreign countries wouldn’t have to look abroad for sperm. You should be able to count on domestic production. But American companies benefit because the United States has fewer restrictions on the buying and selling of sperm than in other countries.

Denmark also exports a lot of human sperm. But donations there and in many other countries are anonymous. And these days, customers want semen with a pedigree.

Xytex often provides clients with photos of the donor and the offspring he’s helped produce, along with detailed biography.

Middle Eastern and Asian sperm are harder to come by, for cultural reasons. Towles says its quite common for a Japanese couple to travel to the United States for fertility assistance.

Lauren Owenby of the Georgia Department of Industry Trade and Tourism helps promote U.S. human sperm abroad. “It’s funny collecting information on this,” she says. “When I called the Danish Consulate, the man there thought I was asking him for his sperm.

“Then I had to explain, I just wanted his country’s regulations.”

Georgia has 11 foreign trade offices, and Owenby has gathered trade information. “Because it is unusual to export sperm, we investigate local laws and trade practices,” she says. But the practice is becoming more acceptable.

For American men who qualify, becoming a sperm donor can be somewhat lucrative. You earn about $50 for each vial you fill. Xytex has 10,000 samples on hand, each one contains about 15,000 sperm.

Some might call it a commentary on society that human sperm and cattle sperm sell for about the same amount on the open market. It’s interesting to note that the United States is a leader in the sale of both commodities, although you can hardly call them interchangeable items.

In fact, sperm from a top bull can sell for $200.

“A specimen of that caliber is really hard to come by. The animal has been carefully bred and almost considered a one-of-a-kind creature,” says Brenda Hastings of World-wide Sires in Visalia, Calif., which ships bovine genetic material to 70 countries.

“I don’t think they can measure humans that way. Not yet, anyway.”

Buck Wolf is a producer at The Wolf Files is a weekly feature. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.