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.
He said a number of concerns come naturally with using a sperm donor to conceive, but particularly so 20 to 25 years ago when practices weren't regulated or standardized. Clinics did, however, attempt to limit the number of babies resulting from one donor to 10.
"Our evidence is that Mr. Lippert had substantially less than 10 children result from his legitimate donation practices," Botkin said Thursday. But the risk was real for accidental and/or intentional switches at the U. clinic and others throughout the country.
He said anonymous donations were also more common then than they are today, limiting the amount of information available about some biological fathers.
Botkin said there is an advantage to knowing a person's genetic history, including the potential for an increased risk of disease and other medical conditions or illnesses.
"Anybody conceived through that process has that challenge," he said. "Children who resulted from donations of Tom Lippert aren't any worse off than other folks resulting from the same process."
She is disappointed with the mixup that resulted in her case.
"It's way too open-ended," she said. "We need to get some information on how something like this can happen."
McAffee said dealing with the unknown limits the amount of help a parent can give.
"Parents that have used the program owe it to themselves and their children to know what they're dealing with," she said. "I think when you've got a wild card in the mix, especially with problems of alcoholism and deviant social behavior that Mr. Lippert exhibits. These are things that are critical to know when you're raising children, especially when you are dealing with them as teenagers and young adults."
Criminal background checks were also not standard at the time and would have revealed a 1975 conspiracy conviction, court-ordered psychiatric treatment and jail time for Lippert, which would have precluded him from university employment today, the report states.
"No family should have to go through something like this, and we are deeply sorry for the stress and uncertainty this has caused their family," said Dr. Sean Mulvihill, associate vice president for clinical affairs and CEO of the U.'s medical group.
He said he spoke with the Branum family earlier this week and offered an apology.
"These events occurred almost 20 years ago, the lab is closed, the key principals are deceased, and the records from this era are incomplete," Mulvihill said, adding that the U. remains committed to working with families that come forward with concerns.
"We have accepted responsibility for this situation, and we will continue doing what we can to help provide those impacted with answers," he said.
Multiple calls to the Branum family were not returned Thursday.
Patients who used the labs in the late 1980s through 1998 and have questions or wish to seek free paternity testing are asked to call the U. at 801-587-5852.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: wendyleonards
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