From the truth is (a lot) stranger than fiction files comes this disturbing story, which interweaves—in ways that would be deemed implausible, if they appeared in a fiction manuscript—several of the topics I've written about here before: legal academia, human subjects research (sort of), reproductive technologies, direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing, and preference heterogeneity.
Recently, a family—wife, husband, 21-year-old daughter—with an interest in genetic genealogy decided to avail themselves of 23andMe's DTC services. They received the results and were surprised to learn that the daughter is the biological child of the wife, but not the husband (and confirmed these results through clinical testing). So far, not so fantastic a story. Rates of non-paternity in the general population are traditionally said to be about 10%, although recent studies have suggested much lower rates. And the fact that the family discovered non-paternity through DTC genetic testing? Welcome to 2013.
The couple, it turns out, had had difficulty conceiving, and in 1991 had sought the help of Reproductive Medical Technologies, a fertility clinic associated with the University of Utah. Several times, clinicians there inseminated the wife with her husband's sperm. Alas, no pregnancies resulted. They decided to give artificial insemination one final try and—success. Some twenty-one-years later, they reflected on their newfound knowledge of the husband's nonpaternity and figured that there must have been a mix up in the clinic. They imagined the life now perhaps being lived by another 21-year-old, created from the husband's sperm and another artificially inseminated client. Unfortunate though they are, accidental mix-ups in fertility clinics are known to happen.
In this case, the family took its nonpaternity results beautifully in stride; the daughter knows that the man who raised her is her "real" dad, and he knows that she is his "real" daughter. Indeed, the family decided to go further and seek out their daughter's biological father—and perhaps the husband's biological daughter. To do so, they used the other two major DTC genetic genealogy companies, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA, to find close paternal relatives of the daughter. Searching for biological relatives through DTC genetic genealogy is increasingly common. Here's a great story about one adoptee's search, for instance, and only yesterday, I agreed to share my 23andMe profile with an adoptee looking for biological relatives. We're not quite yet at truth-stranger-than-fiction status yet.
The AncestryDNA testing yielded a predicted second cousin for the daughter, and the family made contact. The second cousin was at a loss to explain their genetic connection, except to note that her first cousin, an only child now deceased, had lived in Salt Lake City at the time and told the family that he'd been a sperm donor. When she shared his name—Thomas Ray Lippert—and an older picture of him, the husband and wife recognized him as Tom, who had worked at the front desk of the fertility clinic as well as in the back, as a technician. The wife
remembered [Tom] proudly displaying dozens of photos of babies behind his desk, boasting that he had helped all of their parents conceive. Looking at all of those beautiful babies and Tom’s confidence gave [the wife] hope that she and [the husband] could have the baby that they so desperately wanted as well. She never could have imagined how far Tom apparently would go to “help” couples conceive. [The husband] too remembered him and recalled thinking that Tom was a bit odd when he handed him the sample receptacle and the magazine.
Admittedly, discovering that someone in the fertility clinic substituted his sperm for the husband-client's is slightly more fantastical, but hardly unheard of in the real world. Tom's mother, still living, consented to genetic testing, which confirmed that Tom was indeed the daughter's biological father.
What happens next, however, reads like the kind of fantastical plot elements that would get a fiction manuscript tossed.