It is generally agreed that increasing IQ is a good thing; IQ is a good correlate with general health, and IQ itself is useful. IQ correlates with countless good outcomes in individuals’ lives, and produces positive externalities. Changes in IQ correlate with income, even past the point where many assume IQ ceases to be useful (the 130s); longitudinal country-wide correlations indicate this is not a zero-sum effect1. Hence, charities like iodizing salt.
I would like to suggest another charity: sperm donation. The average IQ of sperm donors is likely lower than it could be; donations by high IQ donors would increase the average and likely would lead to, on the margin, smarter offspring.
How large is the margin? It’s hard to be sure, but individual donors can be used in many pregnancies - the deviations from whatever average are really deviate. English records from apparently 1990-2005 apparently
…reveal that exactly 500 anonymous donors have fathered 10 or more kids each - a total of 6,111. Of these, 8 have fathered 20 children and 7 even more. About 2,000 children are born every year in the UK using donated eggs, sperm or embryos…They are only allowed to give their sperm to 10 different women.
..Over the years, she watched the number of children in her son’s group grow. And grow. Today there are 150 children, all conceived with sperm from one donor, in this group of half siblings, and more are on the way…While Ms. Daily’s group is among the largest, many others comprising 50 or more half siblings are cropping up on Web sites and in chat groups, where sperm donors are tagged with unique identifying numbers.
…No one knows how many children are born in this country each year using sperm donors. Some estimates put the number at 30,000 to 60,000, perhaps more.
…Sperm donors, too, are becoming concerned. “When I asked specifically how many children might result, I was told nobody knows for sure but that five would be a safe estimate,” said a sperm donor in Texas who asked that his name be withheld because of privacy concerns. “I was told that it would be very rare for a donor to have more than 10 children.” He later discovered in the Donor Sibling Registry that some donors had dozens of children listed…Ms. Kramer, the registry’s founder, said that one sperm donor on her site learned that he had 70 children. He now keeps track of them all on an Excel spreadsheet.2
An article on the largest Danish sperm bank remarks that
The average donor at Cryos can assume he has fathered 25 children, but Simon is likely to have more than 100 offspring.
The average number of children per donor is likely greater than one, given that it seems unlikely there are 30,000-60,000+ active sperm donors3. This leads to a second benefit for the donator: they can rest assured that they have offspring, and offspring that are planned & wanted (as opposed to being the result of a one-night stand). Such a child is not a substitute for raising one’s own child, of course, but consider the upside to not raising them: not raising them. We have all heard the estimates that to raise one child according to middle-class standards entails direct and indirect costs in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Given that the research is not encouraging on whether raising children actually makes you happier, one has to ask - are kids really worth that? Why not let someone else raise the kid, someone who has demonstrated that they really want a child by not just agreeing to raise one but paying heavily upfront for a mere chance to? Division of labor and Pareto-improving transactions and all that.
There is a third benefit. Surprisingly, sperm donor-assisted pregnancies result in 1/5th the number of birth defects as pregnancies in general. (The CDC tells me that the defect rate is 1 in 33 or ~3%, and that birth defects in 2006 directly killed 5,819 infants.) Much of this large benefit stems from the paternal age effect - older fathers’ sperm result in more birth defects, lowered IQ, linked to autism, etc. To the extent that a sperm donor donating displaces, at the margin, the conception of future offspring at an elder age, donation directly reduces birth defects and the other mentioned effects.
Indeed, given the mixed data on whether sperm count rates are falling with time and the more reliable data on the striking increases with paternal age of negative effects like birth defects or autism - perhaps due to increased mutations4 - it may be worthwhile even for non-donators to bank their sperm for later use. A quick perusal of one sperm bank’s prices suggests that a 20-year old could store a large sample of his sperm until he is 40 for ~$5000 with the ultimate artificial insemination adding <$4000 to the final cost; if this resulted in cutting the risk of his children being autistic by 30%, would it be worthwhile? Perhaps. It is worth considering.
The equivalent procedure for women - oocyte cryopreservation - is more pessimistic, however, since egg donation is much more difficult/risky and the complicated process of harvesting eggs at least triples the total cost: “$9,000 to $15,000 per attempt, plus $350 to $500 a year to store the eggs” according to the Washington Post. On the other hand, female infertility rates increase with age and roughly doubles from age 20 to age 40 from 10% to 20% (summary in Lampi 2008; these studies have been criticized for unrealistic samples and false claims about infertility increases in the 30s, but regardless, there is still a very large infertility increase in the 40s), suggesting oocyte cryopreservation may eliminate a 10% chance of being unable to have a child. How much is that worth? Children are priceless to their parents, but they come with large costs and indirect costs to free time & careers - and having a child may have a lifetime cost exceeding $100k. Yet people still do, implying they value children more than mere money or careers, and it’s unlikely there’s some sharp dropoff where kids are worth exactly $100k but another $10k in fertility treatments is just too much money to pay. With this in mind, it sounds like oocyte cryopreservation may be worthwhile for career-minded women. In addition to enabling fertility at all, oocyte cryopreservation likely also reduces the risk of birth defects and other health problems; but on the negative side, even if a woman has become infertile when she wants a child in her 40s, the infertility may be unrelated to her eggs and so needs be remedied by some other treatment (like using a surrogate mother), and the oocycte cryopreservation investment wasted.
Technically, there is a fourth benefit to sperm donation: one may be paid. But the sums are nominal compared to the pay for an egg donation (>$5,000, and possibly kept low by price-fixing) and probably not worth considering.
A final speculative benefit is the storage of sperm itself. It is a rare but existing practice for women to purchase egg freezing services for their own eggs, to guard against loss of fertility (from age & delaying childbearing, cancer treatment, etc.) Semen cryopreservation is believed to work for long periods (at least 21 years so far) and presumably could also be used as a hedge.
What are the costs? As far as I can tell, if one does not seek out the children (a connection which could then be construed by a court as assuming the role of father, which has happened), there is no legal exposure to be worried about. The main cost is undergoing the testing sperm banks demand. From Sperm Bank Directory.com:
You may approach a sperm bank directly to see if they are accepting new donors. You will be asked a number of questions over the phone. At that time, you will be asked to come in to the bank (or laboratory) for a meeting. During this first meeting, the laboratory will spend [substantial] time with you, have you fill out a very thorough questionnaire about your own medical history and your family history. At that time they will go through their rules and procedures. Often labs will ask you, during this first visit, to produce an initial semen sample in the collection room. This initial sample is tested by the lab to see how much sperm is in the ejaculate, its quality, and how well it freezes. Most labs have private collection rooms with videos or magazine to help with production.
Assuming the sample looks good and you meet the bank’s basic criteria, you will be invited back for a full physical and to have blood drawn. At that time, you will probably be asked to produce another sample of semen and urine. These will be thoroughly tested for infectious disease, sexually transmitted diseases or genetic problems. Assuming all of these tests are completed and come back negative you will be able to start regular donations. Most often banks ask you to sign a contract agreeing to produce specimens 1-2/ week for at least 6 months. Again, each laboratory has its own requirements.
Wikipedia reads us the riot act:
- Taking a medical history of the donor, his children, siblings, parents, and grandparents etc. for three to four generations back. This is often done in conjunction with the patient’s family doctor.
- HIV risk assessment interview, asking about sexual activity and any past drug use.
- Blood tests and urine tests for infectious diseases, such as:
- HIV-1/2 see sections below
- Hepatitis B
- Hepatitis C
- Cytomegalovirus (CMV) see sections below, although not all clinics test for this.
- Blood and urine tests for blood typing and general health indicators: ABO/Rh typing, CBC, liver panel and urinalysis
- Complete physical examination including careful examination of the penis, scrotum and testicles.
- Genetic testing for carrier traits, for example:
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Sickle-cell disease
- Other hemoglobin-related blood disorders.
- …General health
- Semen analysis for:
- Sperm count
- Acrosome activity may also be tested
All this is apparently at the sperm bank’s expense (aside from one’s time and patience). Hence, it may be simultaneously a cost and a benefit - the more they test, the more opportunity you have to learn about yourself.
It’s not clear how many people will clear all these hurdles. From Science Daily, “Sperm Donors Valued Less Than Egg Donors”:
“Men donors are paid less for a much longer time commitment and a great deal of personal inconvenience,” she said. “They also are much less prepared for the emotional consequences of serving as a donor of reproductive material. Women, meanwhile, are not only paid more for a much shorter time commitment, they are repeatedly thanked for ‘giving the gift of life.’”…The inequities persist despite the fact that profiles of hundreds of potential egg donors languish on agency Web sites, far outstripping recipient demand, while suitable sperm donors are quite rare, Almeling found. In fact, only a tiny fraction of the male population possesses a sperm count consistently high enough to be considered donation-worthy, and more than 90% of sperm bank applicants are rejected for this and other reasons. As a result, sperm banks routinely resort to finder’s fees to meet the need…In contrast, sperm banks do not pay as well or encourage such displays of gratitude. Male donors make between $50 and $75 per donation, and they are paid only when their samples meet the high fertility standards required for freezing. Over the length of their contracts - generally, an entire year - sperm donors may make as much as their female counterparts do over the course of a single six-week cycle, but only if they donate more than the required one sample per week. Invariably, however, earnings of sperm donors fell short, either because donors missed weekly sessions or their samples failed to meet fertility standards. Women also may donate as many as three times in a year, and their fees increase with each completed cycle.
Worryingly, it sounds as if the ongoing costs are not simply blood draws (to test for STDs):
Moreover, men work much longer for their pay than women, and their activities are much more restricted as a result. In addition to requiring weekly donations for a year, sperm banks instruct men to refrain from sex for two days prior to donation or risk the possibility that their samples will fail to meet fertility standards. Being sick or stressed also has a negative effect on sperm count. “Even the doctors who were working with infertile couples were surprised when they learned just how demanding the process is for men,” Almeling said. “Sperm donors basically have to schedule their sex lives for a year.”
In addition, some donors may be turned down entirely based on cosmetic features; eg. “Sperm bank turns down redheads”:
Ole Schou, Cryos’s director, said that there had been a surge in donations in recent years, allowing the facility to become much more picky about its donors. “There are too many redheads in relation to demand,” he told Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet. “I do not think you chose a redhead, unless the partner - for example, the sterile male - has red hair, or because the lone woman has a preference for redheads. And that’s perhaps not so many, especially in the latter case.”
Slate in 2001:
Cryobanks became ever more sensitive to consumer anxiety about health and donor achievement. Today the California Cryobank-probably the world’s premier sperm bank-tests for a dozen genetic disorders and for almost as many infectious diseases. Donors must complete a 38-page, three-generation medical history, and submit to months of blood testing. The cryobank accepts only college graduates or students enrolled in a four-year program. (The cryobank’s offices are in Westwood, Palo Alto, and Cambridge, Mass., meaning that most of its donors hail from USC, UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, and MIT.) And donors must stand at least 5 feet 9 inches tall. By the time it weeds out the sickly, the short, and the dim, the California Cryobank accepts only 3-5% of applicants.
Sean Berkley in a 2011 Cracked article, “6 Terrifying Things Nobody Tells You About Donating Sperm”, breaks down the harsh realities for us:
“You May Now Have Dozens (or Hundreds) of Children – and They May Find You
At my particular bank, it was $20 a pop for a closed donor and $125 for an open donor. You’re allowed to donate a maximum of twice a week, so going the open route will pay upwards of $12,000 a year, certainly not a bad chunk of change. However, this comes at the expense of releasing all your personal information to parents should they (or their child) ever want to contact you…While no person who has donated sperm through a bank has ever been found liable for child support (at least not yet), you and your family are still going to have to deal with the fact that there’s a child, biologically YOUR child, who wants a relationship with you…I’ve had more than one girl refuse to date me because I’ve donated sperm, and I can totally understand where they were coming from. Who wants to deal with that kind of drama?“56
“Not Tonight, Honey, I Have to ‘Work’ Two Days From Now.
As mentioned above, you have to have an above-average sperm count for the whole process to be viable, so as such, you’re required to be abstinent two to three days before making a deposit. So if you’re trying to maximize your profits by donating twice a week, that leaves one day per week that you can do with your genitals as you please…Even if you’re only donating once a week, you will still have a set day and time each week to come in and make your deposit (sperm banks operate on 9-to-5 hours). So if a girlfriend’s birthday or your anniversary happens to fall less than three days before your scheduled appointment, too bad….Your sperm count is still spot checked on each donation; if it’s too low, you don’t get paid for that deposit. If several donations in a row are rejected because of fledgling sperm counts, you may be asked to follow a special diet"
“Yes, You Can Be Legally Obligated to Masturbate
So if your first two donations are good enough, they’ll bring you on as a paid donor. However, that means you’ll be required to sign a contract, usually for six months to a year, stating you’ll come in at least once a week to spank the monkey. Just to make sure you follow through, your paychecks are kept in escrow by the sperm bank until the end of the contract. In the meantime, your sperm are cryogenically preserved to maximize shelf life, but not all sperm handle the freezing process well. So, your first two donations are put on ice, and at the six-month mark, they’re unfrozen to check how they’re doing. If your tadpoles are still kicking, congrats, here’s your check. If your sperm has gone all Mr. Bigglesworth, however, sorry, hit the road. Also, there are certain delayed onset diseases that can take a few months to show up on blood screens (like HIV), so they need to test you every six months to make sure your sperm is cleared to give to parents. By withholding the money, that helps ensure donors to come back for their follow-up tests."
“The Staff Is Female, There Is Porn and You Will Be Interviewed
The sperm count is where most people have trouble, since you’re already required to have an above-average sperm count, and masturbation only produces about half as many sperm as having sex. 50-90% of donors who make it this far are eliminated."
“They Will Need to Know Everything About You (and Your Family)
…In keeping with the practice of only taking the best of the best, there are 50 or so disqualifying conditions (again, depending on the bank), and something as minor as a food allergy can knock you out of the running. Also, if you’ve ever had an STD, you’re automatically disqualified, even if it has since been cured…You must also be able to provide a detailed medical history for every parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, cousin and grandparent you have, as well as any children your siblings or cousins may have, going back four generations…I had an uncle who died at a relatively young age in a workplace accident and I was asked to produce a newspaper article or obituary verifying my claim. I also had one set of grandparents who both died in their late sixties from heart attacks, which naturally was a cause for concern. When I explained that they had both been lifelong smokers and drinkers, I then had to assure them that no other member of my family had a history of substance abuse, to assuage their suspicions that I might be genetically predisposed to addictions."
“Minorities, Runts and Gingers Need Not Apply
…You obviously must be male (or a very talented female), usually between 18 and 35, and live within an hour’s drive of the sperm bank. Not too difficult, right? Oh, did I mention you have to be at least 6 feet tall? Yeah, turns out nobody likes shorties, least of all prospective parents….Also, you need to have a high school degree or better. The bank I went to required that you at least be enrolled in college, if not already a college graduate.“7
The various figures suggest that a random male interested in this will have a very small chance of success, perhaps sub-10%; 10 kids on average doesn’t seem an implausible guess, for an expected value of 1 kid. This is discouraging.
On the other hand, all this material is specific to the United States of America. Some of the previous articles mention American exports - why? Because there are shortages in other countries like England or Canada. Due to the shortage, for an Englishman, all the barriers above are far less taxing; David Gerard reports that he successfully donated despite being 44 (oldest donators are 45) and having failed his previous fertility check, and the tests or background checks were far less invasive. Further: “the UK typically has ~500 people a year wanting sperm, but only ~300 donors’ worth of sperm.” This suggests that the English odds are well over 50%, that one’s time investment is less than half, and the main drawback of non-anonymous donation seems minor (and given the increasing power of consumer genetics, it is highly likely that in the next 30 years, any donor child who wants to will be able to track down the donor as was done by one teenager in 2005; see also Gymrek et al 2013). If donating would be a good idea in America, then it could be an excellent idea in England.
All this is suggestive and interesting, but not complete. To make a solid utilitarian case we would need to establish:
- What is the average IQ or general genetic quality of donors? What is the marginal increase in each offspring?
- What is the average number of offspring produced?
- At what point do diminishing returns set in?
- How costly is the testing/application process, and then how burdensome is the actual donating process?
Donation in Norway
This document is a compilation of research on sperm donation in Norway (translations are by Google Translate, with corrections by me). Key points:
lack of anonymity for the donor:
In Norway anonymity for sperm donors was abolished, and there was instituted a registry of donors’ identities. This means that whoever is born using your seed at the age of 18 will have the right to know your identity, ie your name and address as listed in the National Register. You may therefore be contacted by up to eight people after they have turned 18. However, you have absolutely no rights or duties towards them. You can not provide information about their parents or their identity. The child’s parents do not know anything about you.8
Parents have no obligation to tell the child that he or she has been conceived by donor insemination, but it is encouraged. Children will not get a message from the public authority on his 18th birthday on who their biological father is. They will be dependent on their parents to tell how they are conceived.9
up to 8 children per donor
A sperm donor today may not be the source of more than eight children and have no legal or financial obligations to their children.10
criteria appear to be more lax than in the US:
What are the criteria to be accepted as a sperm donor?
- A sperm donor must be of age, be a Norwegian citizen or have permanent residence in Norway.
- He should be between 25 and 45 years and preferably have their own children.
- Have normal good health.
- He must not have known serious hereditary diseases in the family.
- Have good semen quality that can withstand freezing.
What investigations should I undergo?
- Taking blood samples for testing for hepatitis B and C, HTLV, HIV, and syphilis.
- Samples testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea are taken from the urethra.
- A blood sample will be tested on so-called Rhesus factor, since rhesus incompatibility between mother and child is a serious, albeit rare, complication.
Genetic testing will not be done, but you will be asked about the occurrence of hereditary diseases in your family.
…[Additionally to physiological testing, there is an interview with the doctor:] The purpose of having a conversation with the doctor is to ensure that you have the necessary understanding of what sperm donation mean to you. Based on the conversation, physicians should consider whether to allow you to donate…A sperm donor must be willing to show up to the laboratory about 10 to 15 times.11
likewise, acceptance rates seem higher
Many potential sperm donors will not be approved. From experience up to 50% of potential sperm donors are rejected, due to poor sperm quality, or because they are not suitable (see interview with the doctor).12
Final Notes: The rules for sperm donation reflect Norwegian idiosyncrasies. In Norway, due to extreme outbreeding (95% of the population is third cousin to each other13), further reduction of genetic diversity is a real concern, thus the (likely) reason for the limit on the amount of children per donor. Further, due to the extreme openness with personal information (for example, tax statements on every citizen available online) it should surprise no-one that sperm donation is not anonymous. It is perhaps due to that, however, that sperm donors are rare:
Because of the difficulty in recruiting sperm donors in Norway, clinics imported sperm for 10 years up to 2005 from a Danish sperm bank.14
Sperm donors in Norway do get paid, to cover travel expenses (250kr, about two hours worth of a basic laborer’s wages after tax - easily covering public transport). I have been unable, as yet, to unearth anyone who is a sperm donor that I could speak to; this is unfortunate, since it would likely provide hints on how to act during the interview with the doctor.
These datasets cannot show causality, and are bedeviled by data that was never collected or was collected on small scales; possible confounds are legion. But nevertheless, the basic trends are in line with what one would expect from many results in psychology & psychometrics, so I present some basic quantitative estimates without further comment. From Rindermann 2011:
Hunt and Wittmann (2008) using different samples and measures support the existence of a correlation between ability and wealth as found by Lynn and Vanhanen, but they question the direction of causality. Cross-sectional studies can never answer this. Leaving aside unworkable country-wide experiments, it would be best to use a cross-lagged panel design with data for many countries investigating reciprocal effects (from former intelligence to wealth, controlled for former wealth and the most important further determinant of growth, economic freedom). Unfortunately we have no data sets with cognitive ability levels from say 1950 or 1960 for many countries; but there are results from some student assessment studies around and before 1970. Additionally, there are large data sets for educational level, and education is the best proxy for cognitive competence (see Fig. 1). For n= 88 nations economic development was longitudinally analyzed for its dependency on education (years at school), economic freedom and former wealth (data and procedure are similar to Fig. 4 in Rindermann, 2008a, except for using log GDP and for 2000). A detailed data and method description can be found in the Supplementary data file.
In concrete numbers (not logged), one added year of school education raises GDP three decades later by US $1614. In the poorer half of the world, a $1000 higher GDP 1970 has increased school attendance in 2000 by about one and half years, in the richer half by 8 months. A similar result could be found using cognitive competence measures (see Fig. 2; data and procedure are the same as for Fig. 5 in Rindermann, 2008a, except for using log GDP and GDP 2000, last from Penn World Table Version 6.3, and except for the second cognitive competence measure, taken updated from Rindermann, Sailer, & Thompson, 2009). Each IQ point increase in the nineteen sixties has raised wealth in 2000 by US $279. Each $1000 GDP increase in 1970 has increased cognitive competence in 2000 by 0.23 IQ-points.
From the 5 September 2011 New York Times, “One Sperm Donor, 150 Offspring”. The mentioned cases of incest and others could be avoided if sperm banks did not enable so many inseminations from one donor.↩
See the previous NYT article, and also Salon 2001, “The Rise of the Smart Sperm Shopper: How the Repository for Germinal Choice accidentally revolutionized sperm banking”:
This attention to consumer choice has boosted the sperm-bank industry. Banks now cater eagerly to the lesbians and single women who were rejected by old-school doctors (and by Graham). Rothman estimates that 40% of his clients are single women or lesbians. In 1987, the last year for which there is data (why no data? Keep reading), more than 30,000 babies were born to women who used anonymous donors. The number has almost certainly soared since then, as sperm banks have massively proliferated…What other branch of medicine could harbor a doctor like Cecil Jacobson, the fertility specialist who impregnated more than 70 women with his own semen while promising them anonymous donors?
See also the British case of Bertold Wiesner, accused of being “likely to have fathered between 300 and 600 children”.↩
The US exports sperm because of the high screening standards and the anonymity of donors (unlike many countries), which caters to fertility tourism; from “Frozen Assets: Why American Sperm Is a Hot Commodity”, Time.com:
While in Australia visiting family for the holidays, I heard a story on the radio about how almost all Australian sperm - yes, the human kind - is imported from the U.S. How odd, I thought, I wonder why? When I got back home, I began researching the issue, and it turns out that Australia, like Canada and Great Britain, bars anonymous sperm donations, which has literally dried up local donations over the last decade. This led me to another surprising discovery: the U.S. is by far the largest exporter of human sperm in the world. Every year tens of thousands of vials go to more than 60 countries.
…There are some notable trends in the export business. Generally, fair-haired donors are preferred, even in South America, Africa and Asia.
Canada banned paying for sperm, and as a consequence, has only ~35 sperm donors in Toronto (Canada’s population is 35 million), and so 80-95% of sperm must be (possibly illegally) imported from America or Denmark; the situation will get worse if it bans anonymity as well.↩
The risks can be strange - in a German case, the biological father had his sperm stored temporarily, but the mother apparently persuaded the doctors to preserve the sperm and then use it later - as she was separating from the father - to impregnate her with twins. The doctors were ordered to pay minimum child support.↩
Economics Uncut: A Complete Guide to Life, Death, and Misadventure, pg 306-307: “…In fact, of the 1509 sperm donors discussed below, not a single one had not been to college. Fairfax Cryobank charges $280 for sperm from men with (or earning) doctorates, $215 for sperm from men without doctorates, but from whom all of the relevant personal information has been collected…From these , 4590 had information on a previous pregnancy or selection. Not too surprisingly (given that sperm banks do not individually price sperm) there is almost no characteristic that is associated with a higher or lower sperm price (see Table 10.3). The regression on prices shows that only a graduate education ($19.83 more than mere college) and height ($1.91 per inch) are associated with increased prices…No characteristic explains differences in selection probabilities except for being Asian or being of multiracial heritage (both negative at 5% level of significance).”↩
“Assistert befruktning er regulert i bioteknologilovens § 2”↩
“Bli sædgiver”; cf. “Assistert befruktning er regulert i bioteknologilovens § 2”↩
Inbreeding happens in cases of having children with too close relations. In Norway, this was expressly forbidden by the church, so people searched farther abroad for mates… which resulted, over the centuries, in quite close relations among the whole population.↩
“Assistert befruktning er regulert i bioteknologilovens § 2”↩