Imagine: you have a life, a job, a house, and perhaps kids of your own. You're an adult, moving through the world with a sense of who you are and what you want.
Then you're told that everything you've founded your identity on is a lie. You are not you. Your father is not your father. Your family used a sperm donor.
Then imagine going on a journey to find out who your biological parent really is - a Sisyphean task in itself, because seemingly no one else wants you to know the truth: the family who raised you, the clinic that made you, the government which ignored your production. Finally, you decide to do a DNA test, because your DNA is the one thing you have that cannot lie. And here begins a different nightmare.
It turns out your biological father is in fact your mother's fertility professional. He inseminated your unwitting mother with his own sperm - an act which some say is akin to rape, and which lawmakers across the USA have increasingly declared illegal. And your mother wasn't alone: turns out, this happened to other women too.
Unfortunately, none of this is hypothetical. It happens with disturbing frequency around the world - including in my own country, Australia.
In my book, Brave New Humans: The Dirty Reality of Donor Conception I reveal allegations that an Australian fertility doctor fathered children in his popular clinic by inseminating female patients with his own sperm - in at least one alleged instance, doing so in the presence of that woman's husband, (such behaviour is more commonly reported in cults.) This is only the second time in Australian history that such allegations have been made, but the first time they have been made while that doctor is still alive.
The allegations arose, like so many do, after a donor-conceived person did a DNA test. When you do a DNA test with Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, or any of the big companies, you are matched with many distant relatives on these companies' databases. You can then begin to piece together your own family tree, using as clues the trees of these newly-found relations, plus publicly available information, such as marriage notices, electoral rolls - anything, in fact. This means you can track down your own biological parent - even if they themselves have never done a DNA test.
Using this process of genetic genealogy (which has ended anonymity in donor conception, despite the vain attempts of fertility businesses and governments to ensure otherwise) this Australian donor-conceived person deduced that his biological father was his mother's fertility specialist. In her interview with me, the mother could only describe this revelation, repeatedly, as 'abhorrent'.
I interviewed that fertility specialist. Initially he denied fathering this woman's child in his clinic, or any other children. 'Is it possible, at any point,' I asked him, 'that you used your own semen?'
'Well, not that I remember,' he said.
This was startling in itself.
At the end of the interview, I asked him if he would be prepared to take a DNA test to prove that he did not father this particular woman's son.
'I certainly wouldn't be happy with people doing testing on me,' he replied. 'I'd just find it an interference with my lifestyle.'
'Because: it would be inconvenient?' I queried.
'Because it would be interfering with my lifestyle,' he replied, with finality.
Yet finding out that your biological father is your mother's fertility specialist is a grim reality reported by donor-conceived people in the USA, South Africa, the UK, Australia, the Netherlands (see BioNews 1067), Germany, Canada - the list goes on. The undeniably creepy phenomenon of doctors-as-donors, acting without patients' consent, is so very real that many adult donor-conceived people around the world actually start their search for family by investigating the fertility so-called professionals at their mother's clinic. Think about that. What does that say about this particular branch of the medical profession and their understanding of ethics? And - most importantly - how does any of this inspire trust going forward?
Estimates vary, but according to one assessment the global fertility industry was valued at more than US $21 billion in 2018. This is an extremely profitable international sector that is often unregulated at a national level. While instances of doctors using their own sperm to impregnate their patients keep surfacing, many in this sector are keen to dismiss these cases as all in the past. However, this is not an issue that any responsible practitioner or government can consign to history.
First of all: how can we know that there are no doctors inseminating their own unwitting female patients right now? Some nations have national donor registers, which is a good start. Some states across the USA are also outlawing doctors from using their own sperm on patients without their consent under so-called 'fertility fraud' legislation: this is another good measure. However - no jurisdiction has done both.
Secondly, some doctors who have fathered children on their own unwitting patients have been outed - yet are allowed to continue practising. For example, Texas' Dr Kim McMorries inseminated his own patients to create at least seven donor-conceived children. These revelations resulted in new Texan fertility fraud legislation in June 2019. However, thanks to the statute of limitations Dr McMorries escaped charges - and continued treating infertile patients at his clinic in Nacogdoches for another two years, until he announced he would retire just last month.
Thirdly, dismissing this malpractice as a historical problem is a form of washing your hands of any responsibility for justice and for the victims. If you are a fertility professional, the proper response is not 'it wasn't me', it is: How can I be an ally to the victims, both patient and offspring? How can I call out my colleagues, if I suspect another hitherto undisclosed instance of this? And how can I demand accountability of my own profession so that we are not all tarred with the same brush?
The only way to absolutely confirm that doctors-as-donors are gone is for all fertility specialists to undergo DNA testing so any future children are able to have it proved that their parents' doctor is not their biological parent. I have no doubt that many readers, particularly those from the baby business, will dismiss this as unreasonable. But consider: doctors-as-donors have been discovered all over the world - and new cases keep cropping up. It is such a widespread phenomenon that the onus is no longer on donor-conceived people to grow up, fight the system, and prove that a terrible nightmare is real. The onus now is on the fertility industry in each country to support the victims, not the perpetrators - and to prove, in 2021, that it has actually eradicated this problem.