Doctors who used their own sperm — how do we keep track of them all?
Way back in 2016, when I first wrote about Ontario fertility doctor Norman Barwin, doctor-donor cases were still pretty rare. Now you need a spread sheet to keep track of them all. As it happens, someone is doing that work for us.
It feels like every week we hear something new about doctors who used their own sperm. Last week, it was a Vermont doctor, John Boyd Coates III.
According to this report in VTDigger, the doctor had previously tried to lie his way out. During deposition he was asked a very direct question: "Did you ever insert your semen into a patient?” His answer was, "No."
DNA evidence suggested otherwise, however. And on the witness stand, the doctor admitted his earlier answer had been untrue.
Last Wednesday, the court awarded $5 million in damages to the patient.
Way back in 2016, when I first wrote about Ontario fertility doctor Norman Barwin, doctor-donor cases still seemed pretty rare. But these days you almost need a spread sheet to keep track of them all.
As it happens, someone is doing that work for us. Traci Portugal, who says she was conceived when her mother's fertility doctor covertly used his own sperm to inseminate her mother, has created the website "Donor Deceived" to keep a running tally of perpetrators by state, and outside of the US, by country.
2 minute read
In 2019, Portugal did at-home genetic testing using 23andme and it led her to a truth about her origins: the man she knew as her father was not her biological father. The DNA results, she says, suggested it was her mother's fertility doctor.
The same doctor had been the attending physician at her birth, and he had signed her birth certificate.
When she confronted him about what he'd done, she says, he admitted it. But he refused to share family medical information, even, according to an account in Above the Law, a legal blog, that his sister had died of ovarian cancer. He soon cut off all contact with Portugal.
"Finding out all of this was absolutely devastating," Portugal has written. "It felt like I tumbled into a black hole with no footholds and no knowledge on how to piece back together who I was, where I belonged and how I fit into this world. I felt the dual grief of knowing my existence was based on 40+ years of lies and that my biological father was a man who abused his position as a trusted medical professional by taking advantage of his patients."
She reached out to other people who'd also discovered their doctors had used their own sperm, and together they created a support group. They shared information about themselves. "And I just had the idea of putting together a map of all the locations where our doctors were from," she told me.
At first, the group was curious if there might be a pattern. Maybe the doctors all worked together, or attended certain conferences. But when they looked at the map, they didn't see a pattern. The doctors were from everywhere.
"It really highlights how pervasive this practice was across the US," says Portugal.
The power of the map was what convinced her to start the website. Donor Deceived launched in time for Fathers Day in 2020.
And the updates keep coming.
"I don't push people to give me all the details until they're ready," she says. "And even then, I don't publish anything on my website unless they agree to let me publish it. I want to respect people's privacy. It's a very difficult story."
From the archive:
What does it tell us that so many doctors used their own sperm? HeyReprotech. 22 Jun, 2021
Insemination fraud. HeyReprotech. 11 Feb, 2020.
Traci Portugal. Testimony. Right to Know.
Steve Price. "Woman uncovers family secret, DNA test results trace father back to mother's fertility doctor." CBS8. 17 Nov, 2020.
Ellen Trachman. "The Deceived Strike Back." Above The Law. 21 Oct, 2020.
Laura Guido. "'Donor deceived:' Woodinville woman is working to change fertility fraud laws." The Weekly. 24 Nov, 2020.
Jacqueline Mroz. "When an Ancestry Search Reveals Fertility Fraud." New York Times. 28 Feb, 2022.