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04/15/2009

When Donor Sperm Goes Bad…

A federal court has ruled that a sperm bank can be held responsible for a poor genetic outcome as a result of conceiving a child with donor sperm, reports the WSJ Health Blog.

In this case, the mother, Donna Donovan, of a 13-year-old girl with Fragile X syndrome, Brittany Donovan, is suing the sperm bank from which half of her genetic material came–blaming them for her genetic condition. The sperm bank, however, located in New York, maintains that donor G738 was screened for all genetic conditions and that the sample was stored appropriately and that there was no breach in either safety or health protocols or the contract between Ms. Donovan and the bank. However, genetic tests, tests which were also available at the time that the sperm was collected and given to to Ms. Donovan in 1995, revealed that donor G738 was a Fragile X carrier while Ms. Donovan was not.

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Ultimately, the ruling by the Federal court came down to conclusions about breach of contract and liability on the part of the sperm bank–but what is more interesting is the precedent this could potentially set for others seeking remedies for promises made and left unfulfilled from donor sperm.

Does a finding such as this open the door to lawsuits about other potentially genetic conditions such as autism? Will mothers of children from donated sperm be able to go back to test sperm samples and say, not only that a gene is present, but as Ms. Donovan did–that the sperm bank should have noticed certain physiological characteristics in the donor that suggested he was a carrier for Fragile X, autism, or other genetic conditions?

While it is certainly possible, it seems to me that the standards for harm and for proof connecting donor sperm to a particular health condition of said offspring was pretty high in this case–which was very cut and dried due to the particular genetic condition at play. I think that future lawsuits will happen, but it will be a very difficult argument to make to say that sperm banks are liable for other multifactoral, potentially environmentally influenced, or otherwise more complicated genetic conditions.

Summer Johnson, PhD

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