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.