An investigation at the University of Utah is testing the presumption that IVF clinics are delivering babies who are the biological children of their clients. The story begins in 1992 with the birth of Annie Branum, the child of John and Pamela Branum. She was conceived with artificial insemination at a fertility clinic linked to the University of Utah.
Last year Mrs Branum followed up an interest in genealogy by getting all three to take a DNA test through the internet service 23andme. To the family’s dismay, the result showed that Annie and her father were not related.
A bit more sleuthing led to the conclusion that Annie’s biological father was Thomas Lippert, a deceased employee of the sperm bank, a Notre Dame law school graduate, a former lecturer in law, and an alcoholic who had served two years of a six-year sentence for kidnapping a female college student and attempting to administer electric shocks to get her to fall in love with him. Lippert had been a frequent donor at the sperm bank, as well as preparing, labelling and shipping samples between 1988 and 1993. Obviously his sperm had been mistakenly or deliberately switched before the artificial insemination.
A University committee has studied the incident and released a report late last month. It concluded that an apology was warranted, but that the most ethical policy was not to notify other clients of the fertility clinic during the time when Lippert was employed. The Branums described this as “a cursory, biased and incomplete investigation”.
The review was complicated by the fact that the clinic was not actually owned by the University. It was a private company, Reproductive Medical Technologies Inc. which worked closely with it. This company was wound up in 1997. Many records were later destroyed. So it is unclear whether the clinic had known of Lippert’s criminal background or why he left the job.
The Branums want the University to notify every patient who used a clinic sperm donor during the years that Lippert worked there. “We believe the knowledge of biological heritage is essential to avoid half-siblings who may be living in the same communities potentially engaging in romantic relationships, as well as for family medical history,” they say on a website.
But the University’s report says that notifying families is unethical:
“The justification for this recommendation is that the risk of having been victimized by Mr Lippert might be very low, the burdens of this information are likely to outweigh the benefits to families, and the challenges of accurately identifying and informing hundreds of couples after two to three decades are enormous.”
The report also said that the University should not release Lippert’s donor number, as that would be of no benefit to couples and would be a breach of privacy. However, the Branums have helpfully provided this information on their website, “Was Your Child Fathered by Thomas Lippert?”
This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.