‘Designer’ babies fuel ethical debate

Company offering Scandinavian sperm for 'Viking'-type offspring

At 5-foot-11, Arnt has blond hair and blue eyes. He swims, runs and works out. A law student, the 28-year-old describes himself as easy-going, a creative perfectionist with a good wit, an extrovert.

He’s not advertising for a girlfriend. His sperm is for sale. Arnt is one of 50 men from Denmark whose sperm sits in one of three metal vats in Manhattan – waiting for a couple or a single mother desperate for a baby. In this case, a Viking baby.

The company, Scandinavian Cryobank, has been in business in Denmark for almost two decades. It takes credit for 10,000 babies worldwide. Two years ago, the company opened a New York office and began marketing Scandinavian sperm to infertility doctors and their patients with a sleek albeit controversial slogan: “Congratulations, it’s a Viking!” Another advertisement shows a blond, blue-eyed baby and talks about his ancestors who beat Columbus to North America. “You’d better build a strong crib,” the ad boasts.

While some think pursuing the fantasy of a near-perfect child smacks of eugenics, Americans are finding ways to attempt to give birth to designer babies, whether through sperm from blond-haired, blue-eyed athletic Danes or by taking ads out in Ivy League college newspapers looking for an egg donor with high SAT scores and varsity team record.

The freedom to choose the kind of child one wants, as opposed to a child who perhaps more closely resembles oneself, could create “consumer eugenics,” said Jonathan Moreno, an endowed professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia. “We have cultural stereotypes. Blue eyes, light skin and height are valued. It would be a historic irony if we all ended up looking like that.”

It’s not clear how many people are opting to create Viking babies. The company provides international statistics only.

About 5 million people in the United States are infertile, and half seek treatment to have a baby. Donor eggs are used by about 10 percent of couples in treatment. By law, the use of donor eggs, which can’t be frozen, is reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While there are strict guidelines for screening the health of donor sperm, there are no government mechanisms in place to track actual use of the sperm, which can be frozen and stored for decades.

First of its kind

Scandinavian Cryobank says it is the first international sperm seller in the United States. Claus Rodgaard is the manager and chief executive of the company’s two-person Manhattan office. He smiles up at blond, blue-eyed babies in oversized photos on the walls who look, well, just like him.

“They are just so damn cute,” he said.

Rodgaard said a person’s choice in a sperm donor is just as personal as his or her attraction to a life partner.

“I don’t think it is an ethical debate at all,” he said. “It is not much different than falling in love. There are thousands of donors in the world, and it is more like natural selection. People shop around and look through donor lists to find someone that appeals to them. It really is so much like real life. It reflects who we are as humans.

“You meet someone. You want to know all about them. Can he cook? Is he sweet? Does he come from a healthy family?”

Sperm in a straw

Scandinavian Cryobank sells sperm in 40 different countries, charging the U.S. equivalent of $275 for one injection of potent sperm delivered in a sealed plastic straw. On average, across all age groups, it can take up to 13 straws to conceive a child. In Denmark, there are 250 donors. Some begin donating in their 20s. The cutoff age is 40. The average donor continues in the program for five years, and can provide sperm several times a week. They get about $80 a straw.

If their sperm doesn’t sell, they are removed from the donor pool, Rodgaard said. He added that each donor on average is responsible for conceiving 20 to 30 babies throughout the world.

Donors with degrees

While the company charges one price for all its donors, a number of U.S. companies charge more for sperm from a donor with a post-doctoral, medical or legal degree.

“Companies are putting a price on what someone does for a living,” said Dr. Daniel Kenigsberg, director of Long Island IVF. “That’s absurd.”

“What is needed is a healthy donor,” said Dr. Jamie Grifo, director of reproductive endocrinology at New York University Medical Center. “There’s no evidence that because some guy made it through college that his offspring will.”

Health remains a key issue. Scandinavian Cryobank keeps track of genetic malformations and in 2004 reported seven potential problems internationally. Most of the donors were disqualified.