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Harvard Babies

By Dan S. Aibel

Discussing the Sperm Bank Solution is a favorite pastime of Harvard males. The holy grail of term-time employment, it's tossed around in conversations as a sure fire way to get out from under escalating debt, the perfect way to make back all that money spent on foot, books and beer.

It has achieved a legendary status worthy of the Action Man, and it's not hard to see why: If one is to believe the stories, the Sperm Bank Solution involves minimum commitment, high reward and little, er, labor.

And, if the dismal reports about the Harvard social situation are on the mark, it's not much of a stretch to believe that Harvard men have grown proficient at the job's central task. In fact, the task itself seems to be at the heart of what makes the Solution such a frequent topic of discussion. "They're going to pay me," the cliche runs, "for something I'd be more than willing to do for free."

What's more, the legend of the Solution has its own Harvard Angle: The conventional wisdom, as I have received it, is that just as consulting firms target the nation's elite colleges, so sperm banks are willing to fork over exorbitantly large sums of money to tomorrow's leaders. In a fortuitous marriage of Darwinian and free-market pressures, the argument continues, Harvard semen is a hot commodity: Why make your child with any old sperm, the advertising jingle might go, when, for just a bit more, you can conceive a Harvard baby?

The more I think about it, the more I have trouble grasping--let alone answering--all the economic and moral questions raised by the selling of sperm. Which may say something about why, for all the talk, no one I know has taken serious steps toward implementing the Solution. Or at least why no one has admitted to it.

Curious to find out how the reality of giving sperm at Harvard lines up with the legend, I do some snooping around. Surprisingly, it isn't long before I find a sperm bank regular. A sophomore and an athlete, he's willing to talk on the condition of anonymity. He tells me that he first heard about the California Cryobank in The Crimson of all places, in the small advertisement the company places in the paper about once a week.

We discuss everything from the Mass. Ave. cryobank's handprint-scanning identification system to its small green cups to its closed-circuit TV system. Still, it isn't long before he starts to deconstruct the myth. It comes out that an extensive medical profile and a battery of tests are required to become a California Cryobank employee, as well as a sperm-count that doubles the average. This screening process leaves less than 10 percent of the males eligible.

But the way he describes it, if you do make the cut, giving sperm is the gold mine that the myth suggests: At $40 per ejaculate, he tells me, it's not too difficult to make $500 a month. That's roughly $200 per hour by his calculation, and enough to keep him from resuming the dorm crew job he held last year or calling home to ask for money.

I lead him into a discussion of the Harvard Angle, but he takes the air out of this part of the myth as well. Everyone gets paid the same regardless of educational credentials, he tells me. Not only is there no advantage to getting into Harvard early action, the pay is the same for those who didn't get in at all.

Still, I'm having trouble swallowing the idea that the California Cryobank opened up shop on Mass Ave.--minutes away from both Harvard and MIT--on a mere fluke. And, in fact, it isn't long before my sophomore informant remembers that he did have to list his SAT scores on one of the early questionnaires.

Wondering how far the local lab goes in taking advantage of the Harvard name (Does it charge different rates for Ivy League and non-Ivy-League sperm?) I dial up the cryobank's Web page. Sure enough, it contains a small but noticeable boast: "The majority of our donors come from UCLA, USC, UC Berkeley, Stanford University, Harvard University and MIT." As of March 1, 1996, the Web site reads, the cost of a sample for fertilization starts at $142, for something called an intracervical insemination.

But in the charts which list categories ranging from donor height to "occupation or major" there is no column reserved for college affiliation. Still, I've got a lingering feeling that if the California Cryobank is going to go through the trouble of attracting students at elite coastal colleges as its donors, it's got to give clients some means to insure that the sample they buy has US News & World Report Top 25 genes.

Eager to get some answer, I'm tempted--because of my strong sense of journalistic responsibility--to pay the cryobank a visit. But the rigors of exam period get the better of me, so early on Tuesday afternoon I give the sperm bank a call, looking for a concession that clients can match up samples with their college of origin. I leave a long message with the receptionist--no one with the information I'm looking for is available--but as of press time, my call still hasn't been returned.

And so I'm on my own to sort out the conundrum of conundrums, the most tantalizing question of them all: Do the children of Harvard sperm-givers get child-of-alumni standing in the application process?

Dan S. Aibel's Column will resume next semester.

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