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Canada: Fertility doctor suspended after sperm mix ups

4 February 2013
Appeared in BioNews 691

Ottawa fertility doctor Norman Barwin has been suspended from practising medicine for two months after artificially inseminating women with the wrong sperm. Five women were involved in four incidents of receiving the wrong sperm between 1986 and 2007.

DNA tests confirmed that incorrect sperm had been used in all four cases. The fifth victim was the sister of one of the women who had agreed to act as a surrogate.

At a hearing on 31 January, a disciplinary committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario reprimanded the doctor for professional misconduct. As part of a plea bargain, Dr Barwin admitted to all four incidents and acknowledged that he had fallen below the standard of medical practice. Two further allegations were dropped.

Barwin voluntarily stopped his work at the Broadway Fertility Clinic in February 2012 where he had practiced for over 30 years and warned other patients of possible problems. These factors mitigated the outcome but a ban was still considered necessary by the College prosecutor, Carolyn Silver, to maintain 'the integrity of the profession'.

One of the incidents, occurring in 1995, had previously resulted in a warning. After that occasion, Barwin purportedly 'took steps to endeavour to ensure that no such errors would occur in his practice in the future', the College outlined in the hearing.

According to Karen Hamway, Barwin's lawyer, he was unsure of how the mistakes had occurred. One of his victims described the uncertainty as 'very, very concerning'. The chairman of the committee, Dr William King commented that 'it is hard to imagine a more fundamental error in [Barwin's] former specialty'.

Barwin is a past president of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society and the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada. He founded the pro-choice organisation Canadians for Choice and has previously received the Order of Canada and Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal for his advocacy of women's health and reproductive rights.

During the hearing, letters attesting Barwin's quality of treatment were submitted. In response, the families assembled victim impact statements, a rare occurrence in such disciplinary hearings.

One victim claimed that the positive testimonials conflicted with their experience, while another remarked that 'there is no question he has helped countless families… However, none of this diminishes the seriousness of the errors we know he has made'.

Before the decision was delivered, Dr Barwin told the panel: 'I regret I've caused my patients any difficulties. My intention was always to do my best for them'.

In addition to the ban, two affected parties have brought lawsuits against Barwin which have been settled out of court.

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