Ask a Eugenicist
Marian Van Court
The Repository for Germinal Choice
Whatever happened to the Repository for Germinal Choice? I read that it closed in 1999, but were the children born from this program ever studied?
All prospective parents signed statements promising that they would take part in surveys in the future, but I remember Robert Graham saying that when they sent out questionnaires about the children, many parents never returned them, so this was a source of frustration and disappointment to him. He understood their desire to protect their privacy, but he wanted very much to follow the children to see how they turned out, yet this study was never done. I interviewed him in Austin, Texas in 1983 for a small publication I edited, The Eugenics Bulletin. I also met with Graham maybe a dozen times or so over the years for lunch, dinner, or coffee. (As a man, I found him to be warm, kind, gracious, and very smart.)
The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, by David Plotz, was published in 2006. Plotz, a journalist, wrote a series of articles about The Repository, and each time he published one, people who had been involved with The Repository – mothers, children, and even a few donors – contacted him. Of the over 200 children born from this program, he eventually communicated with 30. Some children even met their donors.
It’s an interesting book, although I detected several inaccuracies and instances of bias. For example, he writes something to the effect that “William Shockley loved attention.” This kind of statement naturally raises a red flag about an author’s objectivity because it’s such a transparent cheap shot.
Plotz portrays Graham as a kook who thought he could create a bunch of little geniuses, but that’s demonstrably false, and quite frankly, I suspect that Plotz knew it was false when he wrote it. Nowhere in Graham’s book or in his interviews did he ever say he expected all geniuses to be born from this program, a majority of geniuses, or even half-geniuses. So why did Plotz characterize Graham that way, in the complete absence of any evidence to support it? Perhaps Plotz felt obligated to forsake truth and conform to standard journalist scorn and ridicule for fear of being ostracized by the “politically correct club,” and a “kook” may be a better subject for book sales than a courageous, innovative, and altruistic man.
Graham had amassed a fortune, and he was no fool. He understood mutations, regression to the mean, and other basic facts of genetics, and he understood probability, and he told me once that, as a matter of chance, there were bound to be a few Repository children who were not blessed genetically, possibly one with something as serious as Down’s syndrome.
Graham said in his interview with me: “Look at it from the point of view of the parents. These are couples who want a child, but can’t have one because the husband is infertile. With this program, they can have a child, and they can maximize the probability [my emphasis] of having a bright, healthy and creative child. Consider the child, too. As a consequence he spends his life with the genes of the donor, as well as those of the mother. Why not provide the best genes possible?”
In spite of his obvious bias, Plotz tells some interesting stories about the children, the mothers, and the donors, some positive and some not, but given questions about his credibility, it’s difficult to know how much faith to have in them. However, by far the most important thing I learned from the book is that The Repository really revolutionized artificial insemination.
Before The Repository, most doctors inseminated patients whose husbands were infertile with little concern about the donors. Prospective mothers were sometimes able to select the donor’s hair and eye color, but little else. The Repository opened in 1980, and it gave much more detailed information about each donor – in addition to his coloring, his height and weight, age, occupation, accomplishments, hobbies, athletic pursuits, whether he played a musical instrument, often his IQ, and so on. Donors also had to pass very thorough medical exams. Suddenly women didn’t need doctors anymore. They had the power to choose what they wanted, and this changed everything. From the very beginning, there was far more demand for sperm than The Repository could provide. Despite constant indoctrination by the media that genes don’t matter, apparently many women weren’t so easily brainwashed. The Repository demonstrated that, overwhelmingly, they wanted the very best sperm. Paul Broder, who worked for Graham, later co-founded his own sperm bank, the California Cryobank, and he readily acknowledges his debt to Graham. Basically, all sperm banks became eugenics sperm banks because The Repository showed that that’s what women want.
Today, California Cryobank, one of the largest sperm banks with over 200 donors and offices in Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Cambridge, provides a great deal more information on donors than did the Repository, and it charges for the information, and for the sperm. It also pays donors. Whereas The Repository gave “germinal material” only to married women with infertile husbands, nowadays sperm banks also cater to lesbians and single women.
According to Plotz, there have been about a million children born from artificial insemination in America as of the year 2000, with around 30,000 more born each year. Graham was disappointed that The Repository children were never studied, but the whole point of studying them was to show how well they turned out, so other sperm banks might follow his lead. The study would have been interesting, but it was largely a means to an end. Graham died in 1997, but he accomplished his objective much faster than he anticipated because The Repository revolutionized sperm banks. Half the genetic heritage of upwards of a million children – with many thousands more each year – has been greatly improved as a result, and that is a huge victory for eugenics.
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