So Much For That No-Strings-Attached Stop at the Sperm Bank

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Pity the poor sperm bank: It's difficult for an institution to maintain its dignity when it's so closely associated with (ahem) adult magazines, mentioned only sotto voce and, as of Wednesday, the focus of a California lawsuit. The parents of 11-year-old Brittany Johnson, who is suffering from a genetic kidney disorder, brought a case against a Culver City, Calif., sperm bank, charging that the facility should have screened Brittany's biological father more carefully for genetic diseases. As it turns out, Donor 276, as the father has been dubbed, has a family history of renal disease, a fact that no one at the sperm bank bothered to uncover.

So the Johnsons, backed by a state appellate court and, now, the State Supreme Court, are forcing Donor 276 (very much against his will) to testify in their case against the sperm bank. The donor, who has fought the subpoena mightily, will be called as a reluctant but potentially damaging witness for the prosecution. It's not hard to understand his reticence — this guy probably thought he'd head in to the sperm bank, make his deposit and high-tail it out of there, check in hand and heart filled with thoughts of untold numbers of happy babies with his nose and hairline. And lo and behold, years later he's dragged into a court battle. Part of the problem, as far as Donor 276 is concerned, is that there are no laws establishing the privacy rights of anonymous sperm donors — and just as Oregon courts recently decided to open birth records to adopted children searching for family health information, the Johnson case could open the door to a far less anonymous future for sperm donors.

The Johnsons' attorneys argue that the donor needs to appear in order to establish the practices of the sperm bank and keep other donors from supplying genetically questionable specimens. Donor 276's lawyers claim the subpoena is a violation of their client's right to privacy, but the California Supreme Court took the Johnsons' side, passing down their judgment without comment: The appellate decision, ordering the donor to appear in court, will stand. And so there may be a very weird moment looming on Donor 276's horizon, in which he encounters the reality of a daughter he'd never imagined he'd see.