In a shocking case, several people born through artificial insemination have learned from DNA tests that their biological fathers were in fact the doctors who performed the procedure.
Sixteen-year-old Eve Wiley growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas, learned that she had been conceived through artificial insemination with donor sperm. Her mother, Margo Williams, now 65 years old, had approached Dr. Kim McMorries, with the problem that her husband was infertile. She requested the doctor to locate a sperm donor which he claimed to have found through a sperm bank in California.
After the procedure, Mrs. Williams gave birth to her daughter, Eve. Ms. Wiley is now 32 years old and a stay-at-home mother in Dallas. Like tens of millions of Americans In 2017 and 2018, she also took consumer DNA tests.
The results shockingly exposed that her biological father was not a sperm donor in California, as she had been told but Dr. McMorries.
The news stunned Ms. Wiley who said, “You build your whole life on your genetic identity, and that’s the foundation. But when those bottom bricks have been removed or altered, it can be devastating.”
Dr. McMorries declined to comment through his attorney and the staff at his office.
With the advent of widespread consumer DNA testing, decades-old cases in which fertility specialists secretly used their own sperm for artificial insemination came to light with some regularity. Three American states have now passed laws criminalizing this conduct. This includes Texas, which even defines it as a form of sexual assault. Dr. Jody Madeira, a law professor at Indiana University, is pursuing more than 20 such cases in the United States and abroad. Such instances have occurred in a dozen states such as Connecticut, Vermont, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada, as well as in countries like England, South Africa, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The Dutch Donor Child Foundation has confirmed with DNA testing that a fertility specialist, Dr. Jan Karbaat, fathered 56 children, born to his patients who visited his clinic outside Rotterdam. Dutch authorities shut his practice in 2009, and he died in April 2017 at age 89.
An attorney representing Dr. Karbaat’s family offered no comments on the allegations and stressed that the cases are decades old.
J.P. Vandervoodt, a lawyer in Rotterdam said, “Thirty years ago, people looked at things in very different ways. Dr. Karbaat could have been an anonymous donor — we don’t know that. There was no registration system at the time.”
In another instance, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario canceled the license of Dr. Norman Barwin, 80, a fertility specialist in Ottawa, and reprimanded him for repetitively using the wrong sperm including his own in artificial insemination procedures across decades. The college discovered that he had inseminated at least 11 women with his own sperm and scores of other donor children claimed that they were conceived with the wrong sperm at Dr. Barwin’s clinic.
The doctor told one woman that he calibrated a clinic instrument with his sperm and that this contamination explained her conception. The college called this justification unbelievable and his actions “beyond reprehensible.”
Carolyn Silver, general counsel at the college said, “His actions will continue to have repercussions for his patients and their families in perpetuity”.
Dr. Barwin and his lawyers were not available for comment.
Dov Fox, a bioethicist at the University of San Diego and the author of “Birth Rights and Wrongs,” a book about technology and reproductive law noted that in the past, patients had little reason to be suspicious about their fertility doctors to whom they had entrusted one of medical science’s most intimate tasks, said of the cases, “In a word, gross. In a couple more: shocking, shameful. The number of doctors sounds less like a few bad apples and more like a generalized practice of deception, largely hidden until recently by a mix of low-tech and high stigma.”
According to state prosecutors Dr. Donald Cline, a fertility specialist in Indianapolis, used his own sperm to impregnate at least 36 women in the 1970s and 1980s. 61 people now claim after DNA testing that he is their biological father.
Dr. Cline, who retired back in 2009, admitted that he had lied to state investigators and pleaded guilty to two felony obstruction of justice charges and. He gave up his medical license and was given a one-year suspended sentence. Calls to Dr. Cline’s lawyer went unanswered.
Prosecutors claim that they were not able to press for a tougher sentence because in Indiana, as in most states, there were no laws prohibiting this conduct. In May, Indiana finally passed a law that makes using the wrong sperm a felony and grants the right to sue doctors for it to victims. Patients may evade the statute of limitations in these cases, bringing legal action up to five years after the fraud is discovered instead of when it took place.
This particular provision is significant to accusers as those who discover the identity of their biological fathers in such cases are usually adults. Similar cases of so-called fertility fraud have prompted other states to enforce similar laws.
After knowing the truth about her biological father, Ms. Wiley pushed for a similar law in Texas, meeting with legislators to demand better accountability in the grossly unregulated industry.
In June, Texas passed its own fertility-fraud law taking one step further than Indiana and California. It states that if a health care provider uses human sperm, eggs or embryos from an unauthorized donor, the law identifies the crime as a sexual assault. Those found guilty must register as sex offenders.
The bill passed unanimously in the Texas state Legislature.
Stephanie Klick, a Republican state representative and a sponsor of the bill, said of Ms. Wiley’s experience, “It was a very compelling story of deception, and we’re seeing more and more cases of assisted reproduction being used improperly. We need to make sure that what happened doesn’t happen again.”
Some experts believe the measure is extreme.
According to Judith Daar, dean of the Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, “Sexual assault is a step too far. Using that language, and imposing the ramifications that assault imposes, is highly problematic and more harmful than helpful.”
The Texas law is applicable when a health care provider uses his own sperm or the sperm of a donor other than the one the patient selected. But could a doctor or clinic nurse be convicted of sexual assault if the wrong sperm were provided in a mix-up?
Ms. Daar, who leads the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said, “If a physician is rushed and inattentive, and grabs the wrong vial, a jury might find that the physician knew or should have known that the material was not what the patient selected”.
If a simple mix-up could result in conviction as a sexual predator, she worries that fertility doctors in Texas may stop practicing.
Ms. Klick, the Texas legislator and a nurse, believes that such deception does constitute assault.
She said, “There’s a physical aspect to it — there is a medical device that is being used to penetrate these women to deliver the genetic material. I equate it with rape, because there’s no consent. It’s creepy. It violates so many different boundaries on a professional level.”
Not a Case of Doctor Knows Best
A few years ago, 36-year-old Marenda Tucker from Oregon, took a DNA test to find out more about her heritage as she knew that she had been born through sperm donation. Her mother was told by the doctor that he had used an anonymous sperm donor from the South.
The DNA test matched the relatives of the doctor himself.
She said, “Once I had the matches, I realized it was the doctor, and I was like, yuck, gross. When I talked to my mom about it, she felt violated. Until now, I’ve been able to handle what life has thrown at me. But this was this weird identity crisis.”
When a reporter contacted the doctor on the phone, with questions about Ms. Tucker’s conception, the retired physician, Dr. Gary Don Davis, replied, “Well, that’s surprising. Let me check on that. Goodbye.”
Further attempts to contact him were unsuccessful, and he died in June.
It is difficult to understand why a doctor would secretly substitute their sperm for that of a donor, or even a husband?
Dr. Madeira, the law professor who has been tracking many of these cases, said that some specialists may simply have thought it was smart business. Frozen sperm was not the recommended medical standard until the late 1980s, and many physicians may not have had ready access to sperm when patients sought help.
Dr. Madeira said, “They could have self-justified their malfeasance in an era of ‘doctor knows best’. In their minds, they may just have been helping their patients by increasing their chances of getting pregnant with fresh sperm for higher fertilization rates.”
She speculated that others, may have had darker motivations by saying, “I would bet a lot of these doctors had power reasons for doing this — mental health issues, narcissistic issues — or maybe they were attracted to certain women”.
After being confronted with the test results, Dr. McMorries acknowledged in a letter to Ms. Wiley that he had mixed his sperm with that of other donors in order to improve her mother’s chances of conception. He wrote that laws regarding “donor anonymity” prevented him from telling her.
“The thinking at that time was that if the patient got pregnant, there was no way to know which sperm affected the conception,” he explained.
Before the doctor’s confession, Ms. Wiley believed that she had already found the man who donated the sperm from which she was conceived: Steve Scholl, now 65, a writer and publisher in Los Angeles.
“We started this beautiful father-daughter relationship — he officiated at my wedding,” she said. “My kids call him Poppa.”
After learning the truth about her parentage, she told Mr. Scholl the upsetting news that she wasn’t his biological daughter.
He recalled in an interview. “It took me a while to process. We felt so much like we’d found each other. We didn’t know how the reproductive industry worked. But very quickly, we both decided not to let this change anything for us.”
Ms. Wiley continues to call him Dad.