Analysis

Donor-conceived children shocked to learn their biological fathers were their mothers’ fertility doctors

IVF, in vitro fertilization, embryo, sperm donor, Ocasio-Cortez

Medscape recently shed light on a fertility industry horror described as “rampant” during the 1970s and ’80s: infertility fraud. In at least 32 cases, according to documentation from the website Donor Deceived, children conceived during those decades through fertility treatments have learned — thanks to at-home DNA testing — that their biological father was actually their mother’s fertility doctor.

Two of the doctors are linked to 75 children.

One of those doctors was Paul Brennan Jones, who agreed in 2019 to surrender his medical license, after being accused of secretly fathering nine children with women who thought they were undergoing fertility treatments using an anonymous donor’s sperm. In court, Jones said, “I don’t admit it; I don’t deny it.” However, he refused to provide a DNA sample, claiming, “I don’t want to have any incriminating evidence against me.”

READ: ‘So sad and confusing’: IVF’s physical and psychological impact on children

Adam B. Wolf, a San Francisco lawyer who has legally represented some two dozen children of sperm-donor doctors, told Medscape that he believes there are many more victims who are unaware of their parentage because they have not taken DNA tests.

Among the fertility doctors who have been sued, Medscape reported that many “who were found out have negotiated settlements with patients, under which they pay undisclosed sums of money in exchange for the patient’s keeping silent.” Wolf told Medscape that all but three of his fertility fraud clients have settled out of court, helping to keep the issue quiet. Wolf noted, “We give an opportunity to the doctor to resolve the claims without having to publicly out this person for using his own sperm in his patients. Most doctors jump at the opportunity to not be known as the kind of person who would do that.”

But when a settlement occurs, the doctor’s confidentiality means that other potential offspring are not notified.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most accused doctors denied their secret paternity, the results of the highly accurate DNA tests notwithstanding. Worse, the saddest line in the Medscape report noted, “None of the identified sperm doctors were interested in having a relationship with their newly identified offspring.” The emotional devastation of such rejection on the now-grown children of these fertility doctors is difficult to put into words.

Traci Portugal learned through DNA testing that Gary Vandenberg, her mother’s fertility doctor and the attending doctor listed on her birth certificate, was also her biological father. She told a local news station in 2020, “If a doctor came in and told his patients, ‘I’m going to go into the next room. I’m going to go do my business in a cup and I’m going to come in and basically, you know, put myself, my sperm inside of you’ – I don’t know any patient would say – ‘oh yes – please go do that.'” Portugal successfully contacted her father, and he readily acknowledged that she was most likely his daughter, but his dismissive behavior and obvious disinterest in getting to know her in any way wreaked indescribable emotional havoc.

“When I first found out, I was very suicidal. I did not want this existence,” she said, adding, “I still have those days. My husband had to take off work and stay home quite a bit to make sure I didn’t do anything to myself… For a man who does this for a living, who helps people get pregnant, who should realize the devastation this kind of discovery causes – he seemed very indifferent and just insensitive.”

Portugal went on to found the Donor Deceived website to help other children born after fertility fraud find answers and help.

READ: The dehumanizing language of the IVF industry

Because the infertility industry was neither widely culturally accepted nor regulated during the 1970s and ’80s, prosecuting doctors who committed fertility fraud has proven challenging. Of those convicted at all, according to Medscape, “The doctors have been charged with battery, fraud, negligence, breach of duty, unjust enrichment, and rape. But none of them have been found guilty specifically of secretly using their own sperm. Two of the doctors were convicted, but for other offenses, such as perjury for denying their involvement.”

In just the past two years, Indiana, Texas, Colorado, Florida, and Arizona each passed laws banning infertility fraud. While the actions of infertility doctors who secretly impregnated their own patients are undoubtedly reprehensible, they are far from the only sad practices that impact children whose fathers were anonymous sperm donors, thanks to a fertility industry that capitalizes on the idea of children as commodities.

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