Assisted reproductive technology (ART) has grown significantly since the birth of Louise Brown, the world’s first ‘test-tube baby’ in 1978, with more than 8 million babies estimated to have been born worldwide as a result of IVF and other advanced fertility treatments.
However, as the generation of children conceived by way of ART comes of age, and with changes in laws that have allowed donor-conceived children to find out details regarding their biological parents, the discoveries being made by donor conceived children about their parentage are revealing a darker side of the industry. In particular, the unscrupulousness and exploitation practised by some operators in the fertility industry, including the way that doctors made money from desperate women by highly dubious means shows an utter disregard for these women and their resulting children, in preference for their own interests.
The stories of some of these donor-conceived children and their searches to discover their biological origins have been documented in an in-depth investigation published in the Guardian. The obstacles and difficulties they each encountered along the way highlight the secretive culture within which the industry has operated for decades, and which persists even to today. As the author states:
“It was a grey area of medicine for decades, neither illegal nor officially regulated: a wild west for doctors who made grand promises to people who were desperate, secretive and ashamed. The clinics were under no obligation to keep records. Due to the stigma attached to both fertility problems and this solution to them – or maybe because it was convenient for the doctors who practised in the field – patients were advised never to tell anyone how their children came to be conceived, least of all the children themselves.”
Indeed the first documented case of artificial insemination, which took place in Philadelphia in 1884, is horrifying:
“Professor William Pancoast drugged a woman with chloroform and used a rubber syringe to inject her with sperm from one of his students. She gave birth nine months later with no idea how her baby was conceived, or that her husband was not its biological father.”
For decades, an attitude of secrecy has surrounded the fertility industry, as donor-conceived children like Sarah Dingle – who have sought to locate their biological heritage upon learning of the truth about their conception – have found. As author Jenny Kleeman states:
“It’s the presumption of ‘what they don’t know doesn’t harm them’. You don’t tell the child – even when they are an adult. It’s been insidious.”
What has become an all too common narrative in these stories is the abuse and maltreatment of women who have been betrayed by their fertility doctors, finding out years later that they had been inseminated with a person’s sperm to whom they did not consent. In fact, numerous fertility doctors around the world have been found to have inseminated patients with their own sperm, without the consent of their patients:
“The story of Fiona Darroch, a donor-conceived South African who found out that her biological father was her mother’s fertility doctor: he had used his own sperm without her knowledge or consent. It came to light when Darroch realised her daughter looked just like her mother’s doctor.”
“Plenty of other fertility doctors have done that. Dr Jan Karbaat in the Netherlands fathered at least 75 patients with oblivious patients; Dr Donald Cline, in Indiana, fathered more than 50; Dr Cecil Jacobson in Virginia; Dr Jan Wildschut in the Netherlands; and Dr Norman Barwin in Ottawa, Canada, whose patients and children were recently offered a 7 million pound settlement – the first time any victim of ‘doctor conception’ has won compensation.”
Following a human rights test case brought against the department of health in the UK and the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA) by Joanna Rose, a donor conceived woman, the laws were changed in the 1990s to allow donor-conceived people to find out some basic biological heritage, non-identifying information about their donors including height and eye colour. It also led to laws banning anonymous donation in 2005 and the creation of a donor conceived register to assist donor conceived people to find information about half-siblings and donors.
“Now, as more of us have become curious enough about our genealogy to take home DNA tests and upload the results to commercial databases, a significant number of fertility fraud cases have come to light. They are likely to be the tip of the iceberg: tens of thousands of people were conceived using donor sperm before there were any regulations to stop doctors using their own sperm, or sperm from men who had never consented.”
The story of Catherine Simpson, who only found out she was a donor-conceived child at age 40 after her father died, and her subsequent search to find her biological father, illustrates the difficulty that donor-conceived children can encounter in their quest to find their origins. She had questions for her mother, but her mother’s memories of the fertility treatment were ‘patchy’. Her mother had been told at the time that the sperm donors were medical students from London.
After ten years of searching with no answers, at age 50, Catherine became even more determined. She located the fertility clinic that her mother had attended, but by that time, the doctor had since passed away. Catherine tried to contact the doctor’s own children, but they were adamant that anonymity must be respected. In the end, she resorted to a DNA test with an online website, which, to her surprise, came back with a direct parent-child DNA match. She called the person involved, who said he’d never been a sperm donor. But after some discussion, the two realised that the man and his wife had gone to the same fertility clinic that Catherine’s mother had attended because they had fertility problems.
“Suddenly, Catherine understood. Her biological father had been another of Boyd’s patients. Paul and his wife Jane (whose names have been changed for this article) had had private fertility treatment at his east London clinic in 1969. Paul’s sperm had been checked. Somehow, the sample he gave was used to create Catherine.”
“Catherine’s mother never had the chance to be angry. The day after Catherine received her DNA results, she went to Sarah’s house to tell her she had located her donor and found her mother dead. She had died, aged 85, oblivious to how the doctor had betrayed her.”
“They were playing with people’s lives at the clinic,” Catherine says. I have been cheated. My biological father has been cheated. My parents have been cheated. People came from all over the world to see Reynold Boyd in Harley Street. This could affect thousands of people. Anyone who went to his clinic could have children they have no idea about. This went on in Britain in 1969. It’s not so long ago. How dare they have done this? Surely there is somebody who can take responsibility?”
The stories of many of these donor-conceived children are heartbreaking; many find out too late that they are donor-conceived, with biological fathers having long since passed away. The secrecy of the industry has caused immense harm to many of these children, who as a result don’t know their identity, history, or their biological fathers. And whose relationships with unknown relatives in the future can be complex and confusing.
It is clear that more needs to be done to bring to light and bring to justice those doctors and clinics who perpetrated abuse and fertility fraud against unsuspecting and often desperate women. To be unknowingly impregnated under such false pretences is highly unethical and in many cases criminal.
However, it is the donor-children who have often lost the most in these situations – so many have had their lives turned upside down upon discovering their parents were not in fact their biological parents, and whose searches for their biological origins have been traumatic and often fruitless exercises, leaving them feeling robbed of their very identities and heritage.