A Canadian fertility doctor is facing a class action lawsuit by the families of some of his former patients, who allege that he used his own sperm in donor-conception procedures without their knowledge or consent.
Court documents claim that Dr Norman Barwin, who was based at Ottawa's Broadview Fertility Clinic until his retirement, used his own sperm instead of his patients, and that he is the father of at least two women whose parents used the clinic to conceive in separate procedures. The women now believe that they are half-sisters.
The lawsuit is alleging negligence and breach of trust against Dr Barwin and is seeking punitive and other damages for what it calls Dr Barwin's 'reckless and wanton conduct, including the cavalier use of his own sperm in his insemination procedures'.
The lawsuit also suggests that more pregnancies could have been affected, with lawyers for the claimants saying they have received 'dozens of calls' since allegations against Dr Barwin were first reported. In 2010 two similar claims were made against Dr Barwin (see BioNews 576), which were later settled out of court.
Daniel and Davina Dixon, who had sought Dr Barwin's assistance in 1989 to help conceive, believe that their daughter, Rebecca, who is now 26, is in fact Dr Barwin's biological child. They claim that others had often commented on the dissimilarity between them and Rebecca.
'When I was younger, I was often asked if I was adopted. And we laughed about those situations,' Rebecca told CBC News. 'I don't physically look a lot like my parents, but I look a little bit like my mother's mom ... I was never really concerned that there was any problem.'
It was only earlier this year, however, that the Dixons made further enquiries after discovering that Rebecca had a hereditary condition, coeliac disease, that neither of her parents had. It was also around this time that her mother, Davina, read an online article that explained how unusual it was for brown-eyed parents like her and her husband to have a blue-eyed daughter like Rebecca.
A paternity test then revealed that Daniel was not Rebecca's father, as their blood-types did not match. 'I remember just this wave of shock going through my body,' Rebecca said. 'It's not something that you ever would imagine. And I know I was immediately concerned for how my dad would feel, his welfare.'
The Dixons undertook further research, learning that Dr Barwin was reprimanded in 2013 for accidentally inseminating three patients with the wrong sperm (see BioNews 691). They also noticed a physical resemblance between him and Rebecca, who both share the same skin tone.
The family alleges that DNA testing connected Rebecca to 25-year-old Kat Palmer, who was also conceived with Dr Barwin's assistance, and that tests show they both share the same father. Palmer also claims that Dr Barwin admitted to her that he was her father. She is now seeking the join the Dixons' claim.
Fertility lawyer Sara Cohen told CTV News that the allegations against Dr Barwin are 'incredibly sad and upsetting' if true. She said the lawsuit had wider ramifications, particularly in respect of child support.
Dr Barwin has declined to comment on the allegations at this stage, but his lawyer Karen Hamway said a defence will be submitted to the court in due course.