Family Matters

Is Sperm from Redheads Really Less Desirable?

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Redheaded men are probably feeling a little hurt this week in light of news that one of the world’s largest sperm banks is up-to-here and has stopped accepting their gametes.

In a cringe-worthy choice of words, the head of the Cryos International sperm bank in Denmark told MSNBC.com that — inasmuch as it relates to sperm donated by redheads — “our stock is about to explode.”

Cryos’ surplus includes 140,000 doses of redhead sperm, and that’s more than enough for now. And by the way, they’ve got plenty of quintessential blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian sperm too. Unless you’re a brown-eyed gent, in fact, don’t bother Cryos.

For the record, it’s nothing personal against redheads. It’s just that Cryos, like any sperm bank, strives to have on hand a diversity of donor characteristics. Scandinavian men tend to have blond or red hair, handed down from their Viking forebears. While that’s desirable in places like Scandinavia and Ireland, Cryos supplies sperm to people in more than 65 countries, not all of whom are eager for their offspring to resemble Conan O’Brien.

No offense to O’Brien, but people generally want their children to look like them. Red hair is the exception in this world — striking, for sure, but no more inherently appealing to couples than any other trait.

LIST: Top 10 Redheads

Naturally conceiving couples are at the mercy of their partners’ genes, but people who rely on assisted reproduction to have a baby have more choice. In theory, they’ve got the ability to build a really great version of themselves: choose the right sperm or egg, and it’s possible to wind up with a cello-playing, science-fair-winning, future World Cup forward.

It’s actually not possible to ensure red hair, however: despite a vial of meticulously selected sperm, that musician-cum-scientist-cum-soccer star may or may not have auburn tresses, depending on a complex interplay between a mutant gene called MC1R, which expresses itself in a build-up of pheomelanin — the pigment that results in redheads.

So why all the hubbub over redheads’ sperm?

Perhaps because people get squeamish around the idea of designer babies. “It makes people uncomfortable because it makes them think about eugenics and designing a super race,” says Julie Shapiro, a law professor at Seattle University who blogs regularly about how the law defines the concept of family. “What bugs people is that they have to make these choices. It makes them feel like they’re shopping for the perfect child as opposed to just having a child with the person you love.”

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But that’s the nature of having options. If there are none, you take what you get. But if the situation dictates selection, you become choosy — Grape Nuts over Cheerios, or brown eyes over green.

When it comes to selecting gametes, reproductive specialists agree that most people do their best to ensure a mini-me: it’s already less than ideal to have to use a stranger’s sperm; angling to make a future baby resemble you helps make the situation more tenable.

As for the maligned redheads, they can take heart in knowing that at least in the U.S., they’re a valued commodity. According to Ty Kaliski, director of operations for Cryos International New York, red-haired donors are an endangered species in his clinic: there are just two.

“That’s not a result of us weeding out redheads,” Kaliski told CTVNews.ca. “That’s a result of redheads not necessarily applying. The redheads we have, they move. Product is not flying off the shelf, but people are buying them.”

MORE: Why Surgeons Dread Redheads

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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