- Good Quality: The Routinization of Sperm Banking in China by Ayo Wahlberg
By Ayo Wahlberg, Professor MSO in the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen
Berkeley: University of California Press. 2018. 248 pages. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520297784/good-quality
When we think of birth planning and China, what usually comes to mind is how the Chinese state's efforts to bring and keep fertility down. In the last couple years, as China experiences very-low fertility, we can see that birth planning now involves encouraging reluctant couples to have more children than they may have planned. Good Quality, a detailed study of state-controlled sperm banking in China, is a wonderful contribution to a literature that understands birth planning in China as encompassing a wide set of practices. Using an ethnographic approach and eight years (2007–2014) of episodic fieldwork, mostly in Changsha, Wahlberg details how assisted reproductive technology (ART), and, specifically, artificial insemination by donor (AID) takes its place in China's population and national goals of China.
There are similarities between these processes in and outside of China; indeed, some of the early technologies and techniques were imported from the west, where work in ART had begun earlier and had more widespread support. And some of the concerns in China resonate with those in other places; worries about a "sperm crisis" or "weak sperm" are voiced in many countries. But Wahlberg argues that China's social and political environment have made sperm banking in China different from these processes elsewhere. He traces the development of ART and sperm donation from its early days to its current over-burdened system, and shows how sperm banking has moved from a deeply distrusted process to being seen as able to help not only individuals and couples but the nation itself.
That the field of ART developed in China at the very time that the state was focused on a very restrictive program to slow population growth by preventing births helps to explain how it was shaped and shaped itself around state population goals. Population quality has been part of birth policies for decades in China, particularly after the 1990s when quality of births, rather than quantity, became the focus. And quality is central to all steps of the sperm banking process: banks recruit high-quality donors; they assess sperm quality through careful lab procedures; and thus they produce a good supply of good quality sperm and are able to provide donor sperm to couples to improve their quality of life. In these ways sperm banks promote themselves as strengthening the quality of China's population. An emphasis on quality also helps to separate current sperm banking practices from public health scandals of recent years such as the blood trade that harmed rural blood sellers in the 1990s and common incidents of contaminated food of recent years.
It is in the details Wahlberg provides on the entire process (the "daily grind")—recruitment, sperm collection and screening, semen analysis, record keeping, distribution—that we come to understand how sperm banking in China mirrors and supports China's long-standing population goals. However, even recognizing ART as part of China's population policies, it may still seem a bit ironic that, in a country where excess population has been the focus of so much state attention, one of the major characteristics of ARTs in China is shortage of the materials needed to produce pregnancies. There are only 23 sperm banks in China, and a vast, underserved need; the wait for AID is usually three years. That shortage is the result of both the number of men who are themselves unable to produce a pregnancy and particular elements of China's program: a five pregnancy limit per donor; and very careful screening and inclusion of only the most "robust" sperm which eliminates most donors and most semen samples. This imbalance of supply and demand has meant that to meet even a fraction of this need, sperm banks have to engage in mass recruitment efforts, constantly and persistently convincing men to donate sperm.
Wahlberg's book details these activities and...