I stumbled upon the world of fertility fraud on TikTok a few weeks ago when a video from Laura High showed up in my feed. (Check her out! She is hilarious and informative.) She is a donor-conceived person who advocates for the passing of fertility fraud legislation at the federal level. So, what is fertility fraud and what is being done to address the serious issue?
Fertility fraud refers to the intentional deception or manipulation of fertility treatments by medical professionals, which leads to the conception of children without the knowledge or consent of their biological parents. A devastating form of medical malpractice, especially for the children involved, fertility fraud has surfaced in recent years, with a surprising number of cases discovered across the globe. Fertility fraud is a relatively new issue that has come to the forefront in recent years due to advances in DNA testing technology.
One of the most widely-publicized cases of fertility fraud is that of Dr. Donald Cline, an Indiana-based fertility specialist who was found to have used his own sperm to impregnate at least 50 women during the 1970s and 1980s. The deception was uncovered in 2016 when several of his former patients took DNA tests and discovered that they were related to each another but not to their documented fathers. Dr. Cline admitted to using his own sperm several times but claimed that he never did so without the knowledge of his patients. (To date, 94 siblings fathered by Dr. Cline have been found.) He ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for lying to investigators and was sentenced to a year of probation.
Another high-profile case of fertility fraud surfaced in Canada in 2019 when a lawsuit was filed against Dr. Norman Barwin, an Ottawa-based fertility doctor who was accused of using his own (or incorrect) sperm to inseminate his patients. The lawsuit alleged that Dr. Barwin had fathered at least 11 children without the knowledge or consent of their mothers. The case was settled in 2020. Dr. Barwin agreed to pay out over $13 million to his victims. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario additionally revoked his medical license in 2019.
The psychological trauma caused by the deception involved in fertility fraud can be profound, with many victims reporting feelings of anger, betrayal, and confusion. For those who were conceived through fertility fraud, the discovery of their true origins can also raise difficult questions about their identity and sense of self. Fertility fraud also raises important legal and ethical questions. In many cases, the laws governing fertility treatments are outdated and fail to address the complex issues surrounding assisted reproduction. For example, in some jurisdictions, no clear laws governing the use of donor sperm or eggs exist, which can create opportunities for abuse or deception. The lack of regulation and oversight in the fertility industry, which can make it easier for unscrupulous practitioners to engage in fraudulent practices, also causes concern.
To address the issues that arise as a result of lax laws surrounding fertility, some advocates are calling for stricter regulation of the fertility industry including comprehensive legal protections for patients. Ultimately, fertility fraud represents a significant breach of trust between medical professionals and their patients. The individuals and families affected by such deception deserve justice and support, and the medical community must take steps to ensure that such practices are prevented in the future.
Fertility Fraud Legislation
In response to the growing problem of fertility fraud, legislation has been introduced at state and federal levels in the United States. First introduced in 2019, the Fertility Fraud Act in Indiana is a law that criminalizes fertility fraud. The law makes committing fertility fraud by fertility doctors a Level 6 felony offense punishable by up to 30 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The law also allows victims of fertility fraud to file civil lawsuits against the responsible parties for damages including emotional distress, medical expenses, and lost income. The Fertility Fraud Act in Indiana aims to protect the reproductive rights of patients and hold fertility doctors accountable for misconduct.
HR 451, also known as the Fertility Fraud Prevention Act of 2021, is a bill that would criminalize fertility fraud. The bill makes committing fertility fraud a federal crime with penalties including imprisonment and fines. The bill also provides for the civil cause of action for victims of fertility fraud, which allows civil lawsuits against the responsible party. Overall, the bill aims to prevent fertility fraud, ensure accountability, and provide justice for the victims of this egregious type of medical malpractice.
HR 8600, also known as the Protecting Families from Fertility Fraud Act of 2022, is a bill introduced to amend the United States Code to criminalize abuse related to assisted reproductive technology. The bill would specifically target individuals who knowingly misrepresent the nature or source of DNA used in assisted reproductive technology or assisted insemination including any procedure that involves the handling of human oocytes or embryos. The bill would impose fines, imprisonment, or both for violations.
Various legislation also exists outside the United States that strives to combat fertility fraud. In the United Kingdom, the government has introduced a new law to regulate fertility clinics and ensure transparency. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 2008 requires clinics to obtain consent from donors, ensure that records are kept securely and are accessible to donor-conceived individuals at the age of 18, and sets out criminal sanctions for noncompliance. In Canada, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA) prohibits misrepresentation of gametes or embryos in addition to the falsification, concealment, or destruction of records related to reproductive material. The Canadian Act also provides for the creation of a registry of donor-conceived individuals, which can help connect donor-conceived people connect with their biological parents if desired.
Fertility fraud is a complex and serious issue that surfaced in recent years due to advances in DNA testing technology. The intentional deception or manipulation of fertility treatments by medical professionals has led to the conception of children without the knowledge or consent of their biological parents. High-profile cases like that of Dr. Donald Cline and Dr. Norman Barwin highlight the devastating effects of fertility fraud and has raised legal and ethical questions. To address the issue, legislation has been introduced at state and federal levels in the United States and around the world. The medical community must take responsibility to ensure that the reproductive rights of patients are protect and that such egregious forms of medical malpractice are prevented in the future.
While Laura High is quite hilarious, fertility fraud and the prevention of the crime are no laughing matter.
CNN. (2019). Fertility Doctor Norman Barwin Used Own Sperm to Father at Least 11 Children, Lawsuit Alleges. https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/20/health/canada-doctor-sperm-lawsuit-intl-hnk-scli/index.html
Cline, D. (2017). Probation Sentence for Donald Cline, Fertility Doctor Who Used Own Sperm. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/14/us/donald-cline-fertility-doctor-sentence.html
Cline, D. (2016). United States of America vs. Donald J. Cline. United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana. Case No. 1:16-cr-00121-TWP-DKL. https://www.justice.gov/usao-sdin/press-release/file/908431/download
Congress.gov. (2021). H.R.451 – Fertility Fraud Prevention Act of 2021. https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/451
Department of Justice Canada. (2021). Assisted Human Reproduction Act. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/A-13.4/index.html
The Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. (2018). Recommendations for gamete and embryo donation: a committee opinion. Fertility and Sterility, 110(6), 1067-1076. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fertnstert.2018.09.016
Grossman, E. (2018). California Woman Discovers Her Fertility Doctor Is Her Biological Father. Time. https://time.com/5315309/eve-wiley-fertility-doctor-father/
HFEA. (n.d.). The HFEA’s role in regulating fertility clinics. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.hfea.gov.uk/about-us/what-we-do/regulating-fertility-treatment/
Hill, C. M. (2020, January 31). Fertility doctor accused of using own sperm agrees to pay $13 million. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/norman-barwin-fertility-doctor-lawsuit-1.5448426
Indiana General Assembly. (2019). Senate Bill 174. Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://iga.in.gov/legislative/2019/bills/senate/174#document-d66c4e90
McGreal, C. (2019). Ottawa Fertility Doctor Who Used Wrong Sperm Agrees to $13m Settlement. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/29/ottawa-fertility-doctor-who-used-wrong-sperm-agrees-to-13m-settlement
Nelson, R. (2020). The Fertility Fraud Crisis is Much Bigger Than You Think. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/11/19/20953380/fertility-fraud-misconduct-ivf-art
Parker, W., & Rice, K. (Producers). (2019, February 20). Fertility fraud: She discovered her biological father was her mother’s doctor [Radio broadcast episode]. In S. Greene (Host), All Things Considered. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/02/20/696118722/fertility-fraud-she-discovered-her-biological-father-was-her-mothers-doctor
Stryker, J. E. (2021). Criminalizing fertility fraud: The case of Indiana. Journal of Law and the Biosciences, 8(1), 1-22. doi: 10.1093/jlb/lsaa042
Text – H.R.451 – 118th Congress (2023-2024): To amend title 18, United States Code, to criminalize abuse with respect to assisted reproductive technology, and for other purposes. (2023, January 24). https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/house-bill/451/text
Text – H.R.8600 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Protecting Families from Fertility Fraud Act of 2022. (2022, November 1). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/8600/text
Woodward, A. (2021, March 1). DNA testing is exposing more fertility fraud. Here’s why it’s so hard to prove in court. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/22385098/fertility-fraud-dna-testing-norman-barwin-eve-wiley-donald-cline
Fertility Fraud and Proposed Legislation © 2023 The Parenting Patch
Oocyte with Zona Pellucida: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oocyte_with_Zona_pellucida_(27771482282).jpg