University of Utah Balances Harms—Did They Get It Right?

A few months ago I wrote about Thomas Lippert.   Lippert worked for a fertility clinic in Utah in the early 1990s and apparently substituted his own sperm for that of intended genetic fathers on at least one occasion.    This came to light recently as genetic testing revealed that a 21-year-old was the genetic child of Lippert and not, as was thought, her social/psychological (and legal) father.

Because this happened quite a while back and because the clinic closed in 1997, details of exactly how this happened are scarce.  It is, however, clear that Lippert was anything but a model citizen.  (He died in 1999.)

Once the story came to light, the University of Utah (the clinic had some affiliation there) did an investigation.  And now that is complete.   So the next chapter in this story is the University’s response.   While it is interesting, it is not entirely satisfactory.  

While the University has apologized to the family who brought attention to this, and while it will provide genetic testing for those who come forward, the University decided not to notify families that used the clinic during the period that Lippert worked there.

The University justified its decision not to notify other families on ethical grounds.   It reasoned that it was more likely to cause harm by giving notification than by refraining from giving notification.   It’s worth reading through the rationale of the committee, which you can find around page 13 of the report–available here.

I won’t attempt to summarize the committee’s reasoning just now–it does speak for itself–but the general sorts of things considered is important.

Presumably they’d be notifying a lot of families–all the families that used the clinic during a four year period.    They only know of one instance where Lippert’s sperm was substituted.  (Lippert did serve as a donor, but where people chose him as a donor, his sperm wasn’t substituted.)   The committee’s view is that those families that get notice are harmed to some degree–which I suppose must be true.   No one could welcome the arrival of the notice.   And for those families where there was no substitution, this harm is to no purpose.

Even among those families where it turned out Lippert’s sperm was substituted, the committee sees moral complexity.   There’s a cost to undermining a families’ belief that a particular man (here the husband) is the genetic father of a child.

Then the committee considers what would be gained by that cost.     Knowledge that the child is the genetic child of Thomas Lippert.   But is there a concrete benefit to knowing one is a genetic child of Thomas Lippert?   The committee notes that there Lippert didn’t seem to have a history of hereditary illness–if there were that would be one reason it would be good to know genetic lineage.   So this leaves the risk of unintentional incest and the (abstract?) value of knowing the truth.

As to unintentional incest, I think it best for you to go read the committee rational.  It is somewhat complicated but clearly enough stated that we can each decide for ourselves what to think.

And the value of knowing the truth?  I don’t know how to assess that and the committee doesn’t really deal with it.

This is really standard and coldly-rational cost/benefit analysis.   I don’t mean to suggest that it is wrong because it is coldly-rational.  I think this probably is the way this should be approached.   If there is fault to be found (and people have found fault) then it is in the weighing of the different factors.  And I’m not sure I can say which of the factors I would choose to weigh differently.

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3 responses to “University of Utah Balances Harms—Did They Get It Right?

  1. From the report…

    So there is limited risk of incest between half-siblings because of geographical area, and pop. size is taken into account to limit the number of half-siblings in any given area.

    It would be too hard to locate and communicate with the 1500 families they served during this time because people move…

    You can’t have something both ways…

    Seemed pretty much like they settled on the statements that cause them the least harm…

  2. It seems like the only thing they care about is not having to take any responsibility. I actually met Lippert sometime in 1988 or so when I visited his Midvale Lab to find out how he operated this place. He assumed I wanted to be a donor and so spoke to me for over an hour, mostly a long egocentric monologue. While there, I witnessed two different donors come in to leave their sperm. One was Greek and the other Danish (from the donor description brochure, these were obvious). Both left beakers on the counter just between Lippert and me. I noticed that he paid little attention to these two beakers and that they had no labels at all on them.

    The University report bothered me for two reasons. They presume to decide what “harm” is, in their favor, without ever doing any study of the children/adults they helped to create. They also presume that informing the children/adults would cause more damage than keeping everyone uninformed. Both positions seem highly paternalistic. As a donor conceived person, I resent that such people would want to protect people like me, who feel we need to know our full genealogy. It is also unrealistic to assume that many of these children will not find out the truth eventually, simply by doing DNA testing on the various sites like FTDNA, 23andme, and especially in Utah, Ancestry.com. The University’s desire to protect their donors is more or less futile with the success of these sites. I found out who my father was 69 years after he inseminated my mother. They may protect their own records but they have no control over the records we carry within us, our own DNA, which many of us are now successful at using to find out the truth. Anonymity can no longer be guaranteed and neither can parents rely on non-disclosure to keep the DI secret. Any teenager or young adult going to these sites to explore their family history will eventually learn about their conception and can identify their father relatively easily (pun intended).

    I myself am related to an offspring who matches with me on Ancestry as a third cousin (one of her known ancestors is from my bio-father’s family). She was conceived in 1991 and most likely comes from this clinic. There was only one other clinic in the city at the time that served mainly single women and lesbians. It is up to this young woman to decide the importance of knowing whether Lippert was her father or not. She would more likely find out the truth through connections on these public DNA sites rather than through using the University’s records. I don’t trust the University clinic to be a reliable source of information. give the attitude they express in this report.

    The idea that notification will be harmful is based merely on their own bias, the long history of assuming that the practice is inherently tinged with shame. We should have the right to decide for ourselves whether such notification is damaging. Five out of my ten siblings who I have found on through DNA testing on these sites were never informed about their conception. They learned about it through testing for the sole purpose of expanding their genealogy, a big thing here in Utah. The oldest of these five was born in 1948. None of them have had more than a small amount of discomfort about learning this. In fact, we are all delighted to know each other.

  3. Bill your success gives hope. Yor an FTDNA detective hero

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