Statement from R. Alta Charo, law professor and ethicist, University of Wisconsin. Consultant and outside reviewer for Special Review Committee
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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