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Family: U. of Utah’s sperm swap probe was ‘biased ... incomplete’

Investigator says he is “very frustrated” by lack of data but insists the review was as thorough as possible.

First Published Apr 24 2014 02:21 pm • Last Updated Apr 25 2014 11:28 am

A Texas family at the center of the University of Utah’s investigation of a deceased fertility clinic worker said Thursday that the report is tainted by the U.’s involvement and reiterated a desire to have other former clients notified.

John and Pamela Branum prompted the U.’s investigation after a take-home DNA test revealed that their 21-year-old daughter, Annie, was the biological offspring of Thomas Ray Lippert, a former convict who worked at the U.’s Millcreek Community Laboratory. Whether deliberately or accidentally, Branum’s own sperm was switched for Lippert’s.

At a glance

R. Alta Charo, University of Wisconsin

(In an email to The Tribune on Thursday evening)

Like the committee, I believe that the Branum family was most grievously wronged. They intended to create a family in which the ties of love and genetics were one and the same. Instead, however it occurred, a particularly unsavory character has intruded upon their lives. But from the reports I have seen, the unwelcome disclosures have not in any way undermined the bonds between parents and daughter, which is a testament to the power of love in their family. In that sense, however wronged they were, and no matter how great and real their distress, their daughter and their family has not been harmed in any physical or other concrete way. For which we may all be grateful.

I also agree with the committee that this situation is peculiar, and management is a delicate matter. It is probable that the vast majority of couples who used the clinic’s services twenty some odd years ago received exactly the service — and the donor semen — that they requested. To reach out to each of these families individually could well cause great distress that is wholly unwarranted and seems almost cruel. Indeed, in what is one of the confusing aspects of the situation, even if there is another family out there that received semen from Lippert or someone else other than their intended donor, they will not be in any distress unless and until they are told they’ve been the victims of a switch. And given that criminality is not genetically heritable, and even the vulnerability to alcoholism has at best unclear genetic influences, having more information offers no medical benefit. This is not to say that Lippert would have been chosen if his background were known. People make donor choices based on all sorts of non-genetic information. But when it is unclear there is any real use to having the information now, long after the semen was used and the child was born, it seems pointless to hunt for these families only to hurt them.

That said, any family motivated to seek information should have that opportunity. Publicity surrounding this case and the hotline the University will maintain will help those families that want further details or assurances, while allowing other families to avoid the distress of unwanted and unwelcome inflicted knowledge.

It is sometimes said in medicine that one must be careful that the cure is not worse than the disease. That might apply here too, when some seemingly common sense responses might well lead to more hurt than help.

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The U.’s report says that they were unable to determine whether Lippert intentionally switched Branum’s sample. The four-member committee found that, ethically, the best practice is not to make any special effort to notify clients of the U. during the August 1988 to July 1993 period in which Lippert was employed by the university.

They did find that the Branums are due an apology, but the family says that doesn’t count for much.

"We are disappointed by what we perceive as a cursory, biased and incomplete investigation on the part of the University of Utah committee," the Branums wrote in a statement. "We know that key witnesses who have knowledge relative to the andrology lab at the U. were not interviewed; consequently, we believe the findings are highly questionable."

Specifically, the U. did not speak to Jean Lippert, Thomas’ widow, or former andrology office manager Jane Jeremenko, who has alleged that Lippert’s supervisors knew of his criminal background. Lippert was convicted in 1975 on conspiracy charges and served two years in federal prison for a well-known kidnapping in which he tried to make a young woman love him through psychological conditioning. Lippert died in 1999.

Jeffrey Botkin, one of three U. physicians investigating, said Thursday that the Branums raise a "legitimate question" about those not queried, but that the committee chose to talk with people at the U. who had "direct knowledge of how the clinic functioned at that time."

Alas, that brings up another concern of the Branums: That current Andrology Director Douglas Carrell and other current U. fertility workers — who not only answered investigators’ questions but also the hotline for concerned clients — were employed by the U. and co-located Reproductive Medical Technologies Inc. while Lippert was known to be there.

As for Carrell, Botkin acknowledged that he was a source of information about the operations at the time, but he added that investigators believed he was a "young faculty member who had just joined the operation" and thus likely not culpable or in a position to point to who was.

It was Carrell who ultimately decided to dissolve RMTI in December 1997, and Carrell is listed as a "program supervisor" in documents from then-director Ronald Urry, who died in 1997.

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Carrell has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Botkin conceded that he was "very frustrated" that more information was not available. The report says records from RMTI were destroyed between 2005 and 2007 by Linda Bury and Ronald Urry’s widow, Pamela Urry — former RMTI principals — "in the normal course of dissolving the business."

Records from the U. do not indicate why Lippert separated from the U. in 1993.

The committee was unable to shed any light on "major mistakes" cited in annual self-reviews of three clinics operated by Ronald Urry that occurred between 1993 and 1995 at the University Hospital lab and at Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis.

Another semen mix-up may have occurred in the case of South Jordan resident Diane McAffee, whose son is not that of the donor she selected. Botkin said that it was outside the scope of the panel’s mission to investigate that case further. He did respond, however, to two of McAffee’s questions about the probe:

• On whether it was acceptable policy at the time to have a clinic worker, such as Thomas Lippert, who not only prepared, labeled and shipped samples but also was a known donor: "Part of the challenge was that during that era, there really were no professional standards. … It was more a matter of common sense and good judgment."

• On whether the U. tested a remaining vial of Lippert’s semen against known family members to ensure that, given the seemingly high potential for mislabeling at the Community Laboratory, it was truly Lippert’s semen: "Our committee did not discuss that issue."

The Branums take particular exception to the committee’s notion that it is unethical to contact other families.

"Common sense says they should be informed by the U.," they wrote.

Botkin explained that the panel determined that mix-ups do not cause harm to the children — without that particular sperm, he said, those particular children wouldn’t exist — but that it does cause real harm to the parents of those children. In that way, he said, the committee agrees with the minority opinion in a Utah Supreme Court case that found for the U. and against the parents of triplets conceived as a result of a mix-up at the University Hospital clinic.

University of Wisconsin law professor and medical ethicist R. Alta Charo was asked by the U. to provide an outside perspective on the committee’s process for generating the report and to review a draft of the report. After reading the final report Thursday, Charo told The Tribune via email that the committee’s ethical reasoning is sound (see box).

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