Family sues over genetic defect

    A Philadelphia teenager is suing a sperm bank because of a genetic mutation in the sperm that gave her a lifelong disability.

    Sperm is the center of a product liability suit developing in US district court in Philadelphia.



    Brittany Donovan has Fragile X syndrome, an inherited form of autism and cognitive disability. A district court judge in Philadelphia has decided that Donovan can sue for damages over a defective product — essentially, the sperm with its mutated DNA. Widener Law professor John Culhane points out some ethical murkiness because without the genetic defect, Donovan’s life wouldn’t exist.

    Culhane: The problem really is that in spite of the claim being brought as one for a defective product, in some ways the damages it seeks are hard to measure. because what are they?

    Culhane points out that without the genetic defect, Donovan’s life wouldn’t exist.

    What we’re saying in a sense is that there’s something wrong and compensably wrong with it. We could see that maybe in a monetary sense if the child costs more to raise or something like that, but to say that the child’s life itself is wrongful is problematic to a lot of people and I think understandably so.

    Culhane says courts have typically dismissed cases that weigh an impaired life against no life at all. University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Caplan says the implications for this case go beyond sperm banks to the wider practice of genetic screening.

    Caplan: What becomes the standard of care at the sperm bank today could easily be the expected standard of care for all doctors tomorrow who deal with couples that want to have children.

    Earlier this spring the judge considering this case agreed to let it proceed. But this week he again heard arguments from both sides and is reconsidering his decision. The sperm bank has said it rigorously screens for genetic defects.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal