A couple of days ago I put up a post about the work of Professor Rene Almeling. Though I haven’t received the book yet (it is on order) in the interview I linked to she discussed ways in which the appeals made to male and female gamete providers are different and how different treatment throughout the process–beyond the obvious ones–reinforce the differential appeals. In a nutshell, the appeal to women is centered on altruism while that to men is all about the money. (It’s really worth reading that earlier post.) With that in mind, this story struck me as particularly noteworthy.
A bit of background: You may remember that there are consistent reports of a sperm shortage in the UK–I’ve written about it more than once. While the shortage seems real enough, the reasons for it are obscure and reporting on it has frequently frustrated me. The most commonly reported reason is the shift in UK law that requires that information about sperm providers eventually be made available to children conceived using third-party sperm, but the timing seems off, since the number of sperm donors generally has actually risen since implementation of that law.
In any event, it is in this context that this story from the Ottawa Citizen appears. It’s about one UK clinic that seems to be running against the UK trend.
[W]ithin a year the London Sperm Bank has become the biggest in the U.K. In that time it has had more than 3,000 applicants, whittled down to 124 top-notch donors, who have produced more than 2,000 vials. This clinic alone has enough stocks to supply half the annual treatment cycles in the U.K. Half a dozen new donors attend each day. They have performed something of a miracle.
Of course the question is “What makes this clinic different?” And the answer (at least according to the reporter) takes me back to Professor Almeling’s work. (It also leads me to revisit some of what I’ve written before about the market economy for gametes.) Consider this quote from the article:
Our men are not better remunerated, but better treated. We get men who’d never have come forward before.”
What this means is that it isn’t all about the money. If you read through the article it seems to me that what the London Sperm Bank does (and that’s a link to the bank for anyone who wants to go and look) is treat men who might provide sperm a bit more like women who are considering offering their eggs. What I mean is that it appeals to men’s altruistic instincts as well as (or instead of?) their economic ones.
I don’t think this means that the market analysis stuff goes out the window. It just means that, as is so often the case, people value more than just dollars (or pounds.) Thus, by focussing on the non-monetary rewards a man who offers sperm might find, you increase the perceived benefits of being a sperm provider. And you increase them most for the men who are most altruistic. Thus, as the clinic says, you get different men coming forward. And, I have to say, I think you probably get better men.
I mean better here not in the sense that they are better physical specimens, but in that they are more thoughtful about what they are doing and its implications. They aren’t just in it for the cash. And this, I surmise, will make them better able to manage the complexities of any relationships that might result from providing the sperm. (It also looks to me like they are older, and a bit of maturity wouldn’t hurt here.)
It’s really fascinating. Perhaps men and women are not so different–we just think they are? Maybe men are altruistic just as women are–if we give them a chance to show that?
All that said, there’s plenty of other material in the Ottawa Citizen article that might give people pause. Consider this–for women who are not looking to match a partner’s characteristics, the most important donor characteristic is height. Is that the evidence of designer babies people are always looking for? A few days ago the story all over was about one clinic’s rejection of red-headed men. I suspect we should be more concerned (if we are concerned at all) about short men.