SÃO PAULO—With “jewel-tone eyes,” blond hair and a “smattering of light freckles,” Othello looks nothing like most Brazilians, the majority of whom are black or mixed-race. Yet the “Caucasian” American cashier, described in those terms by the Seattle Sperm Bank and known as Donor 9601, is one of the sperm providers most often requested by wealthy Brazilian women importing the DNA of young U.S. men at unprecedented rates.
Over the past seven years, human semen imports from the U.S. to Brazil have surged some 3,000% as more rich single women and lesbian couples select donors whose online profiles suggest they will yield light-complexioned and preferably blue-eyed children.
Everyone wants a “pretty kid” and for many parents in Brazil, where prejudice often runs deep, that means “the white biotype—light-colored eyes and skin,” said Susy Pommer, a 28-year-old data analyst from São Paulo who decided to get pregnant last year after a breast-cancer scare left her eager to raise a child right away with her partner, Priscilla.
The preference for white donors reflects the persistent racism in a country where social class and skin color correlate with glaring accuracy. More than 50% of Brazilians are black or mixed-race, a legacy of Brazil having imported more than 10 times as many African slaves than the U.S.; it was the last Western country to ban slavery, in 1888. The descendants of white colonizers and immigrants—many of whom were lured to Brazil in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the ruling elite explicitly sought to “whiten” the population—control most of the country’s political power and wealth.
In such a racially divided society, having fair-skinned offspring is often viewed as a way to provide a child with better prospects, from a higher salary to fairer treatment by the police.
Money is also a factor setting parameters for the DNA import boom. Carefully categorized and genetically vetted sperm from U.S. providers has to be procured from Brazilian fertility clinics at a cost of some $1,500 a vial, often as part of an in vitro fertilization procedure that costs roughly $7,000 an attempt. Whites are more likely able to afford that in a country where about 80% of the richest 1% are white, according to Brazil’s statistics agency.
Imports are rising in part because many Brazilians simply don’t trust the national product. Unlike in the U.S., it is illegal to pay men to donate their sperm here, so domestic stocks are low and information about Brazilian donors sparse.
“It basically says ‘brown eyes, brown hair, likes hamburgers’ and what their zodiac sign is—that’s it,” said Alessandra Oliva, 31, of the information available on local donors. She has 29 pages of information on the American father of her 14-month-old son, from a photo of him as a child to genetic tests for cystic fibrosis.
U.S. sperm-bank directors said preferences like those of Brazilian purchasers hold across their global market. “The vast majority of what we have and what we sell are the Caucasian blond-haired, blue-eyed donors,” said Fredrik Andreasson, CFO of Seattle Sperm Bank, which provides about a quarter of Brazil’s imports.
Globally, 5% to 8% of sperm sales at Virginia-based Fairfax Cryobank, a large distributor and the biggest exporter to Brazil, come from donors who identify as black, said Michelle Ottey, the company’s laboratory director.
Brazil, however, buys almost all its imported sperm from donors characterized as Caucasian, with a smattering of Asian or Latino donors, according to Brazil’s health-care regulator, Anvisa. Almost a third of the specimens are from blond donors, and 52% from men with blue eyes.
Brazil also stands out globally for being one of the fastest-growing markets for imported semen over recent years, Ms. Ottey said. More than 500 tubes of foreign semen frozen in liquid nitrogen arrived at Brazilian airports last year, up from 16 in 2011. While Anvisa data isn’t yet available for 2017, officials and sperm-bank directors said semen imports continued to grow last year, putting the total increase since 2011 at more than 3,000%.
The trend speaks in part to social changes in Brazilian society. Success in reducing gender inequality means more women are pursuing professional careers and delaying childbirth. Some have little time or inclination to find husbands, and many can afford to raise a child alone. Meanwhile, more lesbian couples are seeking sperm donors after recent regulatory changes made it easier to register a child in both of their names.
In 2016, heterosexual couples bought 41% of Brazil’s imported sperm, single women purchased 38% and lesbian couples bought 21%, but demand is growing fastest among the latter two groups.
Eduardo Motta, a director at the Huntington fertility clinic in São Paulo, said his well-off patients often insist on blue-eyed donors because they see that characteristic as a surefire way to get a donor that “doesn’t put in jeopardy the color of the skin.” White heterosexual couples consider this important, he said, when an infertile husband plans to pass the child off as his own.
For the many Brazilian women who can’t afford the imported version but long to have a blue-eyed baby, there is alwaysFacebook . Every month, scores of Brazilian men post offers there to impregnate women free, either by having sex or with a needleless syringe.
Among them is João Carlos Holland de Barcellos, a 61-year-old computer scientist whose piercing blue eyes and silvery blond hair—a legacy of what he says are his English and German ancestors—make him popular with wannabe Brazilian moms. His wife manages his agenda and transfers his semen via syringe to the near-daily guests to their chaotic São Paulo home.
He sees children as a way to perpetuate his genes and ensure his existence beyond death. “It’s an atheist’s way to achieve immortality,” he said.
Write to Samantha Pearson at email@example.com