When Woodley Park resident and Slate Deputy Editor David Plotz first heard about the founding of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, in 1980, he was 10 years old. “My father read [a Washington Post article about the bank] as we were sitting at breakfast and exploded in indignation,” Plotz (a former senior editor at the Washington City Paper) recalls. Though he didn’t know what a sperm bank was, his father’s outburst left the impression that the bank “represented science gone wrong.”
Two decades later, as he anticipated the birth of his daughter, Plotz was surprised to find the bank again on his mind. “Thinking about what part of you is in your children, what is it like growing up with genetic expectations—that really fascinated me,” he says.
So Plotz set about researching the history of the bank, an exercise in eugenics that was as novel as it was shoddily conceived. Only a few decades after eugenics had become synonymous with Auschwitz, an eccentric millionaire set out to save mankind’s genes by tracking down the world’s most brilliant men and convincing them to jerk off into plastic cups.
But after the punch line came the babies, kids largely forgotten by the media by the time they started first grade. Plotz wanted to find them, but “[the founder] was dead, the donors were anonymous, and the files were secret,” he says. “It was this kind of project that was impenetrable to regular journalism, so we decided [to] see if [Slate’s] readers could help write the story.”
In the winter of 2001, Plotz posted an article on Slate outlining the bank’s murky history and asking for leads.
Overwhelmed by e-mails from mothers, donors, and children in search of long-lost relatives, Plotz’s history of the bank came to double as a donor– child unification project. “By sheer chance, I was the one person who could connect them,” he says. “I tried not to let people get too starry-eyed. That said, it’s still pretty amazing when a child meets her biological father and their worlds light up.”
But in the process of reuniting bank families, Plotz also stumbled across plenty of pain. “The nonbiological fathers were in a very difficult place,” he says. “The man who was the biological father was supposed to be so much better than you.”
Knowing about their test-tube progenitors was a strain on bank children as well, and a story about artificial insemination ultimately ended with a rather conservative moral about parenting. “Everyone needs to know who they are,” Plotz says. “I think that for some kids, the hope that the sperm donor would end up going to their baseball games is very strong.”
But Plotz found that some further investigative reporting on the subject of sperm-banking had to be done. Despite interviewing dozens of donors, he says, “I just didn’t get why guys would do it. It seemed to me so embarrassing, pointless, and emotionally risky.”
So, despite numerous misgivings, Plotz visited the Fairfax Cryobank, a full-service fertility clinic located near the end of the Metro’s Orange Line. In possession of a college degree and 105 million spermatozoa per milliliter, Plotz was certified breeding stock. And though he ultimately declined to become a donor, he finally understood the attraction. “I felt this genuine glow when I found out that my sperm passed that first cutoff,” says Plotz.
The Genius Factory, Plotz’s book chronicling this saga, was released last week, but his work still isn’t done. “Every time there’s more publicity about it, people start to contact me,” he says. “Just in the last [few weeks], I’ve connected three donors and three children.”
David Plotz will discuss The Genius Factory on Monday, June 20, at Olsson’s Arlington/Courthouse, and on Saturday, June 25, at Politics and Prose.