Imagine picking up a 23AndMe test to find out if you’re secretly related to Prince Harry, and learning that your mother’s fertility doctor—who she trusted to handle her artificial insemination procedure several decades ago—had actually used *his sperm* as the donor in your conception.
Eve Wiley, now 32, has known since she was 16 that she’d been conceived via artificial insemination with donor sperm, but only after taking at-home DNA tests in 2017 and 2018 did she learn that the donor was her mom’s fertility specialist. Her story, detailed in a recent report from the New York Times, is only one of more than 20 similar cases from all over the world. The details of each story vary, though one horrifying fact remains the same: none of the mothers knew their own doctors would be providing the donor sperm.
Like Wiley, Marenda Tucker, now 36 and with four children of her own, told the New York Times that she also realized her biological father was her mom’s doctor after taking a DNA test. “When I talked to my mom about it, she felt violated,” Tucker says. “Until now, I’ve been able to handle what life has thrown at me. But this was this weird identity crisis.”
Several fertility specialists used their own sperm, without the consent or knowledge of their patients, dozens of times, and now have more than 50 children scattered around the world. According to a 2018 New York Times story, Donald Cline, MD, a fertility specialist in Indianapolis, was discovered using his own sperm to impregnate at least three dozen women throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and 61 people now say he’s their biological father. Sixty-one people! In some particularly disturbing cases, Dr. Cline told his patients he was using their husband’s sperm, but instead used his own.
People who have discovered that their biological fathers are actually their mom’s doctors say they feel gross, and fundamentally shaken up. “You build your whole life on your genetic identity, and that’s the foundation,” Wiley told the Times. “But when those bottom bricks have been removed or altered, it can be devastating.”
Consider for a moment that the relatively recent development of consumer DNA tests—which also played a critical role in the arrest of the Golden State Killer in 2018—made these discoveries possible. Patients used to have very little reason to suspect fertility doctors of such behavior, Dov Fox, a bioethicist at the University of San Diego and the author of Birth Rights and Wrongs, told the Times. “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.”
Because people are just now making these discoveries, only three states—California, Indiana, and Texas—have passed fertility-fraud laws criminalizing the practice of doctors using their own sperm in artificial insemination. In Texas, where Wiley lives, the law is particularly harsh: health care providers found using sperm, eggs, or embryos from unauthorized donors now face charges of sexual assault, and those found guilty have to register as sex offenders.
While regulating the use of unauthorized sperm is a good thing, some experts think the Texas law goes a step too far. “Using that language, and imposing the ramifications that assault imposes, is highly problematic and more harmful than helpful,” Judith Daar, dean of the Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University, told the New York Times. Other experts fear the Texas law could actually discourage fertility specialists from practicing in the state, out of fear that a medical error may result in criminal assault charges.
The motivations behind doctors using their own, unauthorized sperm isn’t immediately clear. Jody Madeira, PhD, a law professor at Indiana University who has been tracking these cases, told the New York Times that she suspects some fertility specialists might have just been trying to increase the odds of pregnancy by using fresh, rather than frozen, sperm. But she speculates that others may have had more sinister motives. “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,” Madeira says.