A Tale from The Bad Old Days With An Almost Happy Ending?

There’s a story that’s been making the rounds that began (at least from my point of view) in an improbable forum:  A law prof blog called “The Faculty Lounge.”   Here’s the original story that I saw.     The Faculty Lounge did not originate the story–you can see that it’s linked to a blog called “Your Genetic Genealogist.”   Since I saw it the story has also cropped up places like the Huffington Post and various more traditional news sources.

Now there are probably some differences in the ways these various outlets are playing things.  While that would (in my view) be interesting to look at, I don’t have the time to take the required care.  Instead I want to go over the basic facts and offer some comments.

IN 1991 a straight couple sought ART services from a fertility clinic associated with the University of Utah.   In time, the woman gave birth to a child that the couple believed was conceived with the husband’s sperm via assisted insemination.   But this was actually not the case.  In fact, the child was conceived using the sperm of a receptionist at the clinic whose name was Thomas Lippert.  

The family only learned that the husband/social father (and almost assuredly legal father) was not the genetic father in October, 2012–by which time the daughter was 20.  It took even longer to track down the connection to Lippert–who it turned out worked at the fertility clinic as a technician and at the front-desk.

Now it turns out that Lippert was anything but a model citizen. Indeed, if one thought one was choosing a sperm donor (and remember the people here did not think they were using donor sperm), he’s not who you’d pick.

The parents remembered Lippert from their time at the clinic and they remembered that he had mentioned being a sperm donor, too.   But nothing would have lead them to believe he was providing donor sperm to him.  (Lippert died in 1999.)   And it’s pretty hard to figure out if he ended up providing sperm to other patients at this or at other clinics.

Now while it is certainly true that Lippert is an unsavory (to put it mildly) character, I’m a bit surprised that everyone seems to lay all the wrong doing at his door and virtually none at that of the supervising docs and clinics.   As far as I can tell the assumption is that Lippert was just doing this on his own–swapping one sample for another.   But surely there’s some culpability, too, on the part of a clinic that apparently had such non-existent processes for keeping track of samples.

The University of Utah asserts that Lippert was a popular sperm donor.  This suggests (to me anyway) that the clinic knew perfectly well that they were using Lippert’s sperm–at least some of the time.   Did they have consent in those instances?  Did they take any steps to ensure that the women being inseminated knew they were using donor sperm as opposed to a husband.

Now you may say this was all a long time ago–and indeed it was.  But the 1990s are not exactly the dark ages.  Surely even then there was some record keeping?  But the fertility clinic is also now gone and so there’s no real trail there either.

So what’s to say, apart from noting the apparent assignment of blame to Lippert alone?  I think it safe to assume that no one is defending this conduct–because it is indefensible.   It’s proof–if we needed proof–that there really does need to be regulation, record-keeping, accountability and so on.  I know the sorts of safeguards responsible sperm banks and fertility clinics put in place.  I won’t say they are perfect–because probably no system can be–but they surely wouldn’t allow this simple switching of samples.  And that’s just as it should be.

Perhaps it is a reminder, too, that attitudes shift over time.  Maybe the magnitude of the wrong was not so obvious then?   It’s surely true that in early days of insemination just about any medical school donor would do and it didn’t much matter if anyone knew who it was.   Again, no one could defend that conduct today.

Perhaps what is most striking to me is the ultimate response of the family involved.   They are, in the end, happier knowing the truth (though I have no doubt they wish it weren’t the truth.)   The wife offered this remarkable quote:

 “My husband also said that he was glad to find out while he is alive. He wouldn’t want Ashley [the daughter] to ever think that if he had known the truth, maybe he wouldn’t have loved her. He had that opportunity and he made sure she knew he loves her just as much and to him it is insignificant. He is her father and always will be.”

This just reminds me that, whatever the things we cannot control, what matters in the end may be what we can do to respond to them.   I wouldn’t have seen this “bright side” of the knowledge had the father not seen it first.

I suppose that there are those who say that his last statement isn’t true–that he isn’t the girls father, but rather Lippert is.   That’s true as far as genetics go, of course.  But the world where we all live is made up of a lot more than genetics and in that place, surely he is the father.

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55 responses to “A Tale from The Bad Old Days With An Almost Happy Ending?

  1. Julie – I don’t think anyone says that a dad, is not a dad, because they don’t share genetics. I do think that is why conversations between people in different position in adoption go off the rails – they (the ones in a parent role) assume something that isn’t being said (by the ones in the child of role). I would imagine that would apply to the donor conception world as well.

    What amazes me in all this is that in the 1990’s they didn’t think they needed record keeping etc. The 1990’s not the 1890’s – professionals with many degrees, and obviously a lot of schooling behind them. Twenty years ago is not part of the dark ages…they knew, they chose to ignore good practices that existed in medicine already.

    • I rather hope that you are correct in your first paragraph. I was making my assumption based on some of what gets written here–but perhaps I was over-reading. I certainly agree with you about the risk of damaging mis-communication–and that’s why I think using precise language is a good idea. And in any event, this particular family could see it’s way clear in the end, which I think is clearly a good thing. I worry just a bit about what others will say.

      As to the second point–it is incredible to be to and the “they” you speak of isn’t the one guy. It’s the institution–the fertility center. I’m surprised that people seem to be giving it something of a pass here and focusing on Lippert. The only protection against someone like him lies in institutional safeguards–we cannot rid the world of all bad actors. And so I’d like to see some attention paid to the culpability of the fertility center.

      • Julie – you can’t undo a history built on years of memories – it’s impossible. My dad will be my dad forever. My father will also be my father forever despite never meeting him. I’m pretty sure that is a norm for many.

        Culpability galore – not acceptable whatsoever. It reminded me of a story about CC adoption in NJ – they connected the wrong father and son in a reunion, and then had to admit after dna tests (father/mother/son) proved unrelated – that they didn’t keep good records and that choice was one of six possible families the man could have come from – he was just one of six babies for adoption to them… (hopefully that made sense). (that case was in the courts)

  2. This is a very good summary. Thank you for the coverage.

  3. This is rape basically. This woman did not consent to be impregnated by that man. IMO any woman who finds out her child is not by the exact specific man with whom she intended to have a child by – like if they give her donor 92 instead of donor 23 has been raped and criminal charges of rape should be filed against the gang that allowed it to happen. Reproduction is a sexual act even when it is assisted there are sex cells involved and if the act was not between consenting individuals its rape. If a woman lays down in the dark and think she’s having sex with one person and it turns out to be another – it’s rape even if she enjoyed it when the lights were off. Whoever ran the clinic should go to jail. And what happened to the sperm of the man who thought he was fathering a child? Where are his children?

    • That’s the exact thought I had: This was rape. I’m sure there have been lots of husbands who have been loving fathers to other men’s children, whether through rape or adultery, both knowing and not knowing the truth, but we never said that means its OK.

    • Would his children not be his children just because someone else loved and raised them?

      • Do you mean would Lippert’s children not be his children just because someone else loved and raised them? That depends, of course, on what you mean by describing the child is as Lippert’s. I will certainly agree she was and is genetically related to Lippert. But I would not say he is her father in any unmodified sense. the man who loved and raised her is her (unmodified) father, even though he is not her genetic father.

        But this is just what we always disagree about. A great deal is in how we use language and we use it differently, you and I.

        • The man who thought he was the father of the girl gave his sperm to the clinic in order to make a baby with his wife. Who did he make a baby with then? What did the bad guy do with that man’s sperm? He may well have taken delight in giving it to some other patient for insemination. This is what happened at OHSU and at UC Irvine. The man who thought he’d raised his own offspring may very well and in fact I think its very likely that he has offspring with some of the other patients in the clinic and his children are out there being raised by other people. What about his kids? Are they not his kids just because he did not raise them? He wanted to and intended to have a kid and raise that kid, meeting all YOUR intentional criteria for a man to become the father of a child. Simply reproducing and having offspring he would meet mine and the standard definition of someone being a father. What about his kids and the father they lost if he made kids with other women?

          • We have no way of knowing what happened to the husband’s sperm. Perhaps it was simply discarded. Perhaps it was given to someone else. Certainly I do not share your assumption that it is very likely that there are children out there created with the husband’s sperm, though of course that is possible.

            And if there are? Then those are his genetic offspring certainly. But the parents (unmodified) of those children are the people who have raised them for lo these many years. It’s not about intention and genetics for me–it’s about actual living relationships. This makes it very difficult to say who is a parent prospectively–that’s why I have such a hard time with the newborn question. But if a child is 18 or 20 and has spent all her/his life in a family raised by a person or people then surely psychologically and socially those are the child’s parents, right? And I think the law ought to recognize and protect those actual existing relationships, because they are what sustains the child.

            Now should we also acknowledge the man whose sperm was used in some way? Perhaps we should. But the key there is “in some way.”

            • Julie I hate to accept that there is sadly a legal exemption from parental responsibility for men who meet the criteria of the term sperm donor, but it’s there. You may hate to accept that barring that one exception all other people are to anticipate legal accountability as parents for their own offspring, that’s just the way it is and it would be totally unreasonable to advise young men to count on not being accountable for their offspring as parents if they did not meet the criteria to classify themselves as a sperm donor. Right? So It’s reasonable to say that people who want to raise all their own offspring themselves would not consent to be classified as a sperm donor, lest they’d loose some of their offspring to other people when born. Authority over their own bodies is not something you question is it? Authority to decide for themselves whether or not they will raise their offspring or allow someone else to raise their offspring – do you agree this is totally within the purview of each individual person with regard to their own body parts and their own offspring? Society does not just mug men and take their semen from them and force these agreements to surrender their parental authority over their own offspring. It’s supposedly their choice to give up some of their offspring to be raised by other people right? I think its terrible that men can give up their offspring as an act of either charity or commerce and I think it’s even worse that the law exempts them from parental accountability for their offspring when born, but such is the case when they sign the agreement to become an anonymous or willing to be known semen donor for reproductive purposes. The husband of the mother did not give any such consent and is not legally exempted from parental accountability for his own offspring.
              If the law would actually recognize someone else as the parent of his offspring without him being a consenting sperm donor and without a court approved adoption then whats the point of getting men’s consent to donate their sperm at all? Should they have no bodily autonomy or authority over the care of their own offspring that they would not be able to decide for themselves that they don’t wish to be a sperm donor, that they wish to care personally for all their offspring as a parent? There is no law that says a man is only accountable for the offspring he has with his own wife. Medically it jjust would not be true.
              Besides the fact that consent is supposed to be required what about their offspring’s identity and freedom? Should people be born free and identified as who they actually are or would it be acceptable to for instance steal the semen of a patient at a hospital tto obtain and raise their offspring without their consent and why is iit that this would not be considered an act tantamount to kidnapping? It is no more or less wrong simply because the kidnapper set it up so they’d raise the kid from the start. Plus the person’s record’s would be all messed up and medically inaccurate and they’d be thinking they were related to someone that was not their relative and not knowing who their actual relatives are the ones they might prefer not to date if they had the option.
              This is a big problem with donation that they are not named parents and don’t have to go through an adoption because clinic mix ups happen to people that did not sign up to be donors, men and women both. Not only is it horribly violating its outrageous that they would not be allowed to act as parents to their own offspring. When this happened at OHSU and at UC Irvine they would not tell them who had their children because of medical confidentiality. I know there have been instances where clinics did tell the the woman who’d be giving birth that she had the wrong embryo or that she was carrying a patients child rather than her husbands and there have been some interesting arrangements struck, but at least they weree able to come to agreement.
              I think every person raised by people who used that clinic should be offered or even made to take a DNA test the way they make men take DNA tests to determine paternity. It’s too important.

              themselves as a sperm donor

    • Obviously people can choose to use whatever language they wish but I am deeply troubled by identifying this as “rape.” It seems to me it does a grave disservice to many women (and men) who have experienced forms of sexual assault that are generally called “rape.” From my point of view it stretches the meaning of the word in ways that diminish the specific harm caused by sexual assault and does so for no real end. Can’t we agree that the conduct is reprehensible without calling it rape?

      I also find myself wondering–if this is rape, who is the rapist? Suppose Lippert deliberately substituted his sperm for the husband’s and then mislabeled it. He didn’t do the insemination–someone else did. Someone who (let’s just suppose) was entirely unaware of what Lippert had done. Who was the rapist? The person who did the insemination? Lippert? Neither one of them engaged in conduct that (to my mind, anyway) seems to warrant that.

      I think your comment also revisits many earlier disputes that we’ve worked over at some length. I don’t think AI is a sexual act, for example.

      I guess I wonder about why people would be eager to call this rape. What does that accomplish, apart from lumping this conduct in with conduct that I think is quite different. I suspect the answer is that those who would call this rape don’t see the differences I see, and so it all comes back to POV. I just cannot help feeling that what happened here is a long way from forced sex.

      • Technically you cannot argue that all human beings are the result of sexual reproduction as opposed to asexual reproduction. And a woman consented to sexual reproduction with a particular man – did she not? She even put that in writing correct? Two consenting adults being assisted by a medical professional in their act of sexual reproduction.

        • I think you are just playing language games here. Yes, human reproduction is sexual as opposed to asexual reproduction and so if you want to speak only in that context, I’ll go with your language. From that perspective, both intercourse and AI are sexual reproduction because neither is asexual reproduction. But in the context of ordinary speech and discussion, which was the context of the original comment, ART isn’t sexual and intercourse is. Or at least, that’s how I see it.

          Perhaps I betray my own standard here to the extent I am not being scientifically precise, but I actually think the scientific usage is misleading in this context. But that’s just my view and you’re entitled to yours, too.

          • rape isn’t associated with reproduction

            • i know this is an odd position for me, since i believe ART use is similar to adultery and I’ve called intrafamily use incest. can’t put my finger on why i see it differently

              • he impregnated her by force

                • He did not; he impregnated her by deception.

                  I have been raped. Plenty of people choose not to call that rape, because it happened over a prolonged period while I was a child — so they call it “molestation” or “sexual abuse”. Rape is rape, however, and I was raped.

                  This situation certainly involved some kind of crime, and it is an intimate crime. It is not rape, however. I am sure it feels terrible, but in a different way than rape.

              • imagine if she was in the stirrups and the doctor said to her – now this is not your husbands semen. This is the semen of our receptionist out there. You have no choice hold still
                I’m going to inseminate you now. And she started screaming and trying to close her legs saying no that is not what I want and the doctor said….just settle down now this won’t hurt a bit I’m not hurting you.

            • unless it causes reproduction

            • Look a mans semen entered her body without her consent

            • She did not consent to the act that caused that particular man’s semen to fertilize her egg

            • Agreed, there is intercourse or some other type of sexual act involved in rape. There is also an act of violent abuse that doesn’t take place here. That wasn’t the case here. Below is the definition of rape which never happened here.

              http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/rape

          • The bottom line here is that she did not intend to have children with that man. She did and she is no less a mother of that child than if it had been her husband who got her pregnant but the act that got her pregnant was not one that she consented to. It was a violation of her bodily autonomy. She was tricked her trust was breached.

            • I agree with virtually everything here, but this doesn’t (to me) warrant calling it rape. It’s a wrong, no doubt. It’s breach of her autonomy. It’s a breach of trust. I wouldn’t call it rape because rape means something else to me. But I really think we need to just agree to disagree here. You’re not going to convince me, nor I you. I think your usage of rape undermines whatever point you’re trying to make but you think it strengthens it. Let’s just call it a stalemate (rather then a draw) and move along? Everyone else can draw their own conclusions.

      • I think it’s insulting for people who have actually physically been raped to say this is rape.

        • I agree with you and this is why it troubles me. I’ve suggested (in a comment I just wrote) that we decide that there will just be disagreement here. I’m not going to be the language police and so if other people call it rape I cannot stop them. I just won’t agree. (And I’m getting tired of the argument–which is not at all meant to be directed to you.)

          Onward–I’ll have a new post later today.

  4. Julie you wrote that what Lippert did is reprehensible. Naturally I agree but i’m puzzled why you would think so, if after all genetics is irrelevant whats the difference whose sperm is in the vial?

    • I may not think that much of the importance of genetics but I fully realize that many other people–including the family here–think it is important. And I don’t think I have any right to just ignore what they think/feel. They went to some trouble to do a particular thing–have the wife inseminated with the husband’s sperm. Lippert and the clinic lied and deceived them–either deliberately or with really callous disregard–in ways that frustrated their expectations. these folks were operating in positions of trust and they abused that trust. This makes it reprehensible to me.

      If the clinic comes forward and says “we have this great donor–here he is–you should use him” then the family can choose to do that or not. the choice was taken from them.

      • if you agree that genetics is clearly important to so many people, why do you adovcate that the law should disregard it completely?

        • I don’t advocate that the law should disregard it completely. I think it reasonable to give the child the ability to contact a person who provided genetic material and I’m even prepared to say there should be some obligations incumbent on the person. This precisely because I do recognize that it is important to some people. But I don’t want to say that the determination of legal parentage should turn on genetics, because this, it seems to me deprives people of the ability to make their own determinations about the importance of genetics. So if two women want to have a child and think genetics isn’t that important, they should be able to use sperm from a man who will not be a legal parent.

  5. as a corollary to the last comment, you wrote that Lippert was an unsavory character, not the type one would choose as a sperm donor. Why does his character matter at all, and can any sperm bank at all, realistically assure a customer that the sperm donor is of good character?

    • I think lots of sperm banks do try to run down a lot of the characteristics of their donors. And at the very least they present them to the buyers. I cannot imagine anyone who would read Lippert’s bio and say “he’s the guy for me” and, that being the case, I cannot imagine any sperm bank paying him for his sperm.

      I think character matters to lots of people using donor gametes, as do many other characteristics. I don’t know how many of them are demonstrably heritable, but still, people take lots of things (sense of humor) into account. And I think they are entitled to do that and ought to be able to rely on the sperm banks to do their homework.

      • why shouldn’t people choose lippert as a sperm donor? surely the fact that lippert was a psychopath and a criminal is part of whats horrifying so many people who may be related to him. but really what differrence does it make if genetic connection means nothing?
        my feeling is that these people know they have an innate connection to that disgusting man, whether or not they have an active relationship with him.

        • Besides the fact that the child might feel bad to be genetically related to someone like that – I’m not really familiar with the science behind this sort of thing, and whether biological children of criminals are more likely to become criminals themselves, even if not raised by the criminal, but I would never take the chance on using a donor with a criminal history just in case there is something genetic that would increase the odds of the child becoming a criminal.

          • well you really have no idea, so all i can say is i hope he doesn’t turn out to be a dismay to your daughter when and if she looks him up

        • The legal father is telling his daughter there is no difference to him. I believe him. There are five million different genomic combinations. Furthermore, she has an individual and unique soul.

          This is my take away:

          Once the emotional familial relationship is forged, there is no difference.

          • Well agreed but what about her other family? What about her legal father’s kids that he might have out there somewhere? I hope he joins FTDNA and 23 and me so that if he has children who are looking for him that he can find them. He should also list himself as a possible father on the DSR for the clinic where his wife was inseminated.

  6. easy for you to say tess, but not if you are one of the folks who is terrified that you or your kid may be related to this skunk of a man, even if only genetically.
    rebecca, talking here about kids who are already grown and not criminals so i can’t imagine that there concern is that they might suddenly become criminal. (anyway i personally thing that criminal gene thing is ridiculous. but thats a separate discussion.)
    my take on it is tthat a genetic relationship is a deep visceral thing, unrelated to whether there is a social relationship or not.

    • That is your relation to the genetic connection, and it shapes your understanding of the world. However, your experience of the genetic connection is not universal.

      In any case — it was not my opinion. I took the words of the father as his truth.

      The genetic connection did not change the emotional relationship. It didn’t change how the father feels about his daughter, or how the daughter feels about her father.

      • I do think that difficult fine line is that people like who raised them but hate the fact that they had to be separated from their own family in order to have been raised by whoever raised them. I mean there is the inevitable separation from the bio parents for whatever reason and that happened. If it had to happen then people are glad generally to have been raised by whoever raised them but the total separation and severing of the legal kinship and identity it just should not happen. I think that if that did not happen and the person remained still the legal child of their bio parents but their bio parents just did not have any parental authority because they either lost it or were too young etc etc (but not that they wanted to give their kid as a gift to someone else so they could have a family) then things would be much more fair and reasonable for anyone who tragically can’t be raised by their bio parents.

        We just need to keep an eye on what motivates people not to raise their kids and if it is an act of either altruism or commerce it should not be enforced by the courts because the person is being objectified and that is wrong.

        • The severing of legal kinship is so overblown. I don’t think I’ve ever read one donor conceived person say that their first objection to thrive conception had anything to do with legal kinship.

          It’s impossible for someone to be the legal parent of their child and not have parental authority. So saying one could be their legal parent but not have parental authority is simply a contradiction of each term. You either are the legal parent with parental authority or you aren’t. It would cause so much confusion especially for the child as to who was their parent.

          Let’s get this over with and you just admit that you only believe parents are ones who conceived them and that only they should raise them.

          • “It’s impossible for someone to be the legal parent of their child and not have parental authority.” That is not at all true. I have a friend that has limited visitation with her children but pays support it’s a major travesty of justice in her case but it happens all the time that one parent will have full legal and physical custody and the other one wont. In fact her parental rights (they call them) were thoroughly terminated. But she is still legally their mother she’s listed on their birth record. They are still siblings to children she might have with another man. They are still the legal kin of their maternal family and they get financial support from her every month pulled from her social security as she’s disabled. If a must loose one or both of their parents care giving and contact, its best if they remain a legal parent. A legally recognized parent does not necessarily have parental authority.

            • No, actually she is not legally their mother. Just because she is on their birth certificate does not mean she is legally their mother. It just means that she gave birth to them and is their biological mother. I am sure there is a good reason that her parental rights were terminated and thus she is no longer their parent.

          • “Let’s get this over with and you just admit that you only believe parents are ones who conceived them and that only they should raise them.” Bio parents are supposed to be the only people with parental authority unless something tragic happens and the child needs to live with a guardian or adoptive family. Its perfectly fine if it is necessary Greg but not if it is not necessary. If they are not raised by their bio parents because their parents gave them away as a gift or sold them I think that is in appropriate don’t you? Don’t you think there are some reasons that are not OK

          • Legal kinship thing is all me, its the legal thing to back up what they want which is to end it. They won’t be able to end it on the front end the way they want. They need a reason on the back end after they are born that will protect their rights – and will in turn make part of a donor’s agreement invalid as it violates their offspring’s rights

    • Oh, I meant that as an additional reason why prospective parents might not wish to use such a donor.

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