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Men at Work

Ewan Mulligan started doing it for the easy money. Joe Purcell needed to pay off his car insurance. And Dan Greene's girlfriend lives in Chicago.

When the three first-year College students heard that they could donate sperm samples for cash, they signed on.

"I decided it'd be in my best judgement," Greene said. "It was all going to waste, so I figured I'd help out humanity."

The University Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health, under the direction of John C. Herr, has been conducting research on sperm cells since 1981. A major project right now, according to research assistant Ken Klotz, is the development of a contraceptive vaccine that could be taken as an alternative to a birth control pill, temporarily immunizing a woman from fertilization.

The lab is "identifying proteins that are unique to sperm and using them as targets for the development of contraceptive drugs and as components of a contraceptive vaccine," Herr said.

Other projects include applications in forensic science, such as the isolation of sperm from sexual assault cases so that the identification of male perpetrators can improve. The sperm research also has applications in the field of cancer where they are developing diagnostic processes, Herr said.

All the sperm donations go directly toward research and are never used for fertilization processes that would help impregnate a woman.

"We don't fertilize human eggs with this sperm," Herr said. "It is analyzed biochemically."

Second-year College student David Humphries said the first time that he went to the Center to sign up as a donor, Klotz was very helpful in explaining the research they would be conducting on his samples.

"It's good research," Humphries said. "I don't have any doubts that it's wrong."

The contraceptive vaccine the lab is developing acts pre-fertilization and has been "no more controversial than a condom," Klotz said.

Without the worry of having "little Dans running around somewhere out there," as Greene said, the greatest opposition the sperm donors said they face comes from their girlfriends.

"My girlfriend was pissed when I told her," Humphries said. "She acted like she had part ownership of my sperm."

Greene, who is in a long-distance relationship, said his girlfriend had a similar response when he told her about his new source of income.

"She just stared at me for like an hour," Greene said. "She doesn't understand the practicality of it. Plus, it keeps me from cheating on her."

And according to the sperm donors, the benefits abound -- most notably in the monetary compensation. The Center pays donors $15 per sample with the first check issued after 10 donations. But there's a kicker -- after 25 donations, there's a $100 bonus.

Humphries said he has made about $650 this year and puts it all toward rent payments.

Any male can become a sperm donor, once they clear an initial HIV/AIDS screening and the lab conducts a sperm count. Klotz said that over 400 students have participated in the last 10 years, with about 60 to 70 men donating at any one time.

"The student population, for whatever reason, has been very willing to contribute to this project," Klotz said

A few Charlottesville residents are also involved in the semen donation program, but in general are limited by the distance they have to travel to get to the lab, he said.

"Many, many people have contributed over the years with many, many motivations for doing so," Herr said.

The Center restricts recruitment efforts to wants ads, with a significant amount of donors hearing about the program by word-of-mouth.

After an initial consultation, the Center provides tubes for the donors to collect their sperm in at home and drop in a box outside Jordan Hall by 10:30 a.m.

"It's kind of hard the first time to get everything to go in the right place, you know," Mulligan said. But once the technique is honed, "it takes maybe a half an hour to get the whole operation finished," he added, including travel time to the lab in his estimate.

The lab mandates the early drop-off time because the samples are used in that day's experimentation. Although some donors find it difficult to make it across Grounds that early, Humphries and a fellow donator have used the drop-off deadline as a time management tool.

"We are trying to get some structure in our lives," Humphries said. "On the days we donate, we jog over to drop it off. So if you ever see a guy jogging on a Tuesday or Friday morning with a little blue cap sticking out of the top of his hand, you'll know what's going on."

The lab places another limitation on donors as well -- they can only donate twice a week and must abstain from ejaculation 72 hours before collecting each sample to assure a high sperm cell count.

"It's all about self control," Greene said. "This kid in the adjacent suite used to masturbate like 15 times a week. Now he donates sperm and has had to keep it down to twice, plus he's getting $30 for it."

The Center guarantees confidentiality for its participants in the study, and no one would know that they donate unless they tell someone themselves.

"You do it early in the morning, so no one's really up to see what you're doing," Mulligan said.

However, some donors want to tell their friends about the research they are aiding and do not mind sharing their experiences.

"There's such a dichotomy in the reactions you get between the girls who are just weirded out by it and the boys who say, 'That's awesome! Sign me up!'" Greene said.

"Girls know that guys do that stuff anyway," Humphries said.

While the method of obtaining the semen sample may cause a few awkward chuckles or shifting in seats, Herr said he wants people to realize the serious implications the research can have.

"Probably the most important global problem right now is overpopulation," Herr said. "I want to emphasize the seriousness of the process"


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