Friday, April 10, 2009

Sperm Bank Sued for Supplying Bad Sperm

I don't have any professional training in ethics or law, but I can tell this is sure going to open up a can of worms. A 13 year old girl with Fragile X syndrome, which can lead to varying degrees of learning disability, is suing a sperm bank under product liability law. The sperm she was conceived with, which her mother bought from the bank in question, carried the genetic disorder (genetically, it's fairly easy to show it didn't come from mom).
"Donovan does not have to show that Idant was negligent, only that the sperm it provided was unsafe and caused injury. "It doesn't matter how much care was taken," says Daniel Thistle, the lawyer representing Donovan, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania."
According to Wikipedia (which we know is infallible), sperm donors may be subjected to various levels of genetic testing. Does anyone know if there are laws requiring them to test for certain disorders? I'd imagine some would be a good idea to test for, especially if they're dominantly inherited and late-onset like Huntington's*. Most recessive alleles are rare enough that there's not as much reason to test - that is, the odds of two random people carrying the same allele is incredibly low. At first glance you may think it's a good idea to hold sperm banks responsible for testing. I mean, you're selling a product, and you don't want to give someone a horrible disease, right?

Well, things aren't as simple as they seem. No two sperm are identical, and errors do occur. A single point mutation that occurs at extremely high rates is the cause of the most common form of dwarfism. A one in a million occurrence isn't going to show up in any sort of genetic testing you may do on a semen sample. The same holds true for any sort of disorder that results from aberrant chromosome number (Down Syndrome, Klinefelter's Syndrome, etc).

Even family history can't always alert us to a problem. This girl's situation is the perfect example. Fragile-X is a dominant X-linked disorder, so you should be able to see it in males, right? Well, not exactly. Fragile-X is caused by having too many trinucleotide repeats, much like Huntington's. Trinucleotide repeats like to do this thing called genetic anticipation, where in every generation they expand and make more and more copies. So while daddy's repeat number (and all of his family members') may be in the "normal" range, after expansion, there may be enough repeats to cause the syndrome. The number can also vary from sperm to sperm, so there's no good way to test this.

So you can see why if she wins, this is going to set a scary precedent. Sperm banks can screen like crazy, but there's always the possibility of getting some bad sperm. It's ridiculous to think you can sue them because something turns out wrong. Anyone who's ever reproduced is taking that same risk. In fact, it's probably lower because most people don't do genetic screening unless there's reason to be afraid. Sperm bank sperm is probably a safer bet than your man. So, should you be able to sue your spouse for providing bad genetic material? I certainly don't think so, but who knows...maybe the ensuing paranoia over reproducing would help fight our overpopulation problem.

Let's hope the judge on this case has some basic understanding of genetics.

*Of course, then you get into the whole ethical debate about whether or not to notify the donor or his children if he does have Huntington's...but that's a whole other issue.


  1. Huh. As the new reader who has an uncomfortable amount of professional training in both ethics and law, and without actually having read the filings or ruling so far in the case, this sounds really dumb.

    It's fairly standard to have strict liability (liability without negligence) for defective products in the U.S., but the rationale that hinges in large part on it being reasonably cheap for the manufacturer of a product to avoid the risks of injury. Something like a sperm bank seems to very poorly fit into that category.

    It's also a little bizarre to think that the sperm bank exposes its customers to any kind of risk, for the reason you mention (that the customer is going to be exposed to the same or worse risks no matter how she tries to bring about her goal -- the risks just come with the activity).

    (Aieee, it's a little unnerving to be the first commenter on several posts in a row. I swear I'm not weird.)

  2. Don't feel weird about commenting! Knowing I'm keeping at least one person interested is great ;P

  3. Suing your parents for crappy genetics was used as a darkly funny narrative device in Kurt Vonnegut's short story "The Big Space Fuck." It's such a shame that life imitates even the art it shouldn't.

  4. I have donated sperm and it involved being tested for a whole page of inheritable diseases, and requires a follow up 3 months after donation to redo all the tests before the sperm is used.

    Well at least I know I'm inheritable disease free. Maybe I should put that on a tshirt!