Amid donor screening concerns, the sperm bank industry is "buyer beware"

Why the sperm bank industry is "buyer beware"

A New York City sperm bank faces multiple lawsuits, claiming it did not properly screen its donors for genetic diseases.

In 2013, when Andrea Frankiewicz and Ruth Perez went looking for a sperm donor to help them have children, they went to Manhattan Cryobank, where they selected an anonymous donor with a similar ethnic background to theirs. Equally important, they say: in his donor profile, the bank listed the man as "negative" for genetic diseases.

"I didn't want to pass on anything to our children because I know from my family history there are a lot of things that are already serious," said Perez.

The couple say their two daughters – McKayla, age 5, and Aurora, 2 – are their blessings in life.

But shortly after Aurora's birth in 2016, they received a letter from Manhattan Cryobank, telling them the donor they chose, Donor #184, was actually a carrier for a genetic disease called thalassemia, a blood disease.

"We were confused on what this was, because we thought that all the genetic testing was done," said Frankiewicz.

What followed was six to eight months of uncertainty, and a series of expensive genetic tests on their daughters, which eventually showed neither girl suffered the disorder.

But the couple is now suing Manhattan Cryobank as part of a class action, claiming the bank improperly screened donor samples, and knowingly sold sperm that could contain genetic diseases to potentially hundreds, or thousands, of people.

"We want to hold them accountable for what they've done by selling these donors to other families without letting them know that they weren't correctly genetically tested," Frankiewicz said.

The couple's lawsuit is one of at least three making similar claims. One filed on behalf of a Missouri couple who used the same donor says their child did inherit thalassemia, which may "require lifelong blood transfusions."

Manhattan Cryobank is now part of California Cryobank, which purchased its inventory and trademark last July. A spokesperson for California Cryobank told CBS News, "We are investigating these claims that occurred prior to the acquisition, but cannot comment on active litigation."

Lawyer Dean Gresham, who represents the families, said, "That sperm was not, in our judgment, properly screened for genetic diseases, and could still be used and sold on the market today."

Gresham says what the bank should have been using is next-generation sequencing technology, which, he says, Manhattan Cryobank only began using in November 2014.

"CBS This Morning" consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner asked, "What is it that you're saying that they didn't do, that they should have done?"

"Go back and re-screen any of the previous donors who had donated since 2007 for any genetic diseases that had not been previously screened for," Gresham replied.

One of those previous donors, he says, was #184 … Frankiewicz and Perez's donor.

"The sperm banking industry is 'buyer beware,'" said Dov Fox, a professor of law and bioethics studying reproductive technology at the University of San Diego, and author of the book, "Birth Rights and Wrongs: How Medicine and Technology are Remaking Reproduction and the Law" (Oxford University Press). He says the lawsuits are symptomatic of larger problems.

"There are no guarantees," Fox said. "The absence of federal, state or professional regulation, at least any kind that's enforced in any way, leaves prospective parents at risk."

Frankiewicz and Perez say they called Manhattan Cryobank after getting that letter, and they never heard back.

"I don't know what person in their right mind would think that's OK, sending it off knowing that you made a medical mistake," Perez said. "I still don't get it. All I can think of is greed."

"CBS This Morning" has reviewed e-mails from California Cryobank to several of its clients, disclosing that a hold has been placed on the use of some donor sperm from the inventory it bought from Manhattan Cryobank. The e-mails said the screening did not comply with FDA requirements.

We reached out to the FDA, but have not heard back.

Have a story of your own? Email us at consumer@cbsnews.com.