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.