U. apologizes for possible sperm donor mix-up, another family comes forward with concerns
Marc Weaver, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A year after the complaint of a possible sperm donor switch by a University of Utah clinic employee, and more than four months of internal investigation, one family has received an apology and others a continuing offer for free paternity testing.
U. officials, however, will not be seeking out families that may have been affected by the potentially intentional acts of Thomas Lippert, who was employed as a andrology laboratory assistant from 1988 to 1993.
They also cannot confirm or deny, based on limited documentation, that Lippert's actions were either intentional or accidental.
A report from the U.'s Special Review Committee released Thursday states that an apology from university officials is warranted to the Texas family that found out about the mix-up through commercial DNA testing on their daughter last year.
But the report details little about what might have gone wrong for John and Pamela Branum, who received help from the U. facility to conceive their daughter in 1991. Annie Branum, whose DNA matches Lippert's, was born in 1992.
The investigation has also left at least one Utah family grappling for answers after paternity tests revealed an unknown donor for their now-17-year-old son.
"Such a sample switch is unacceptable, whether caused by the unethical or irresponsible conduct of Mr. Thomas Lippert or any other employee of the University," the report states.
Lippert died of complications of alcoholism in 1999 but was employed at both the local Reproductive Medical Technologies and the U.'s Community Laboratory on 3900 South in Salt Lake City. While he never had any children of his own, Lippert donated sperm at the labs prior to and during his employment, and he reportedly handled the processing of his own donations.
The U. clinic served an estimated 1,500 couples during the five years Lippert was employed, and the Branum family is the only identified case in which a possible intentional sample switch occurred, according to the report.
But the story doesn't end there.
"There are some physical characteristics that were very telling," said Diane McAffee of West Jordan, who insisted that her son be tested even though his age put him outside of the variable dates. She had used a frozen specimen to conceive him.
While the investigation and tests now show that Lippert is not the Utah child's father, McAffee was told no one knows who her son's father is, which is also "troubling."
"When you go through as much time and effort to pick the person to be a biological parent of a child, that is a huge responsibility to make sure you've done that correctly," she said. McAffee has four older children from another relationship, but she was implanted twice with donor sperm at the U.'s laboratory in the 1990s. She requested the same donor for both children, wanting them to be fully biologically related.
"You want your children to have the very best start on life that they possibly can," McAffee said, adding that something as delicate as creating a life ought to be handled with more scrutiny and care, which is what she expected upon selecting the U. facility.
Utah officials also don't confirm or deny if Lippert has other children resulting from his "legitimate donation practices," according to Dr. Jeffrey Botkin, a member of the committee, a professor of pediatrics and chief of the division of medical ethics and humanities at the U. But they won't be seeking those cases out either, as Botkin states it wouldn't help anything.
"The harms or burdens associated with that information probably outweigh the benefits that people might gain," he said.
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