The Netflix documentary “Our Father” exposed a jarring truth about the fertility industry. Jacoba Ballard knew that her mother used a sperm donor to conceive her. Curious about the identity of her father, she took an at-home DNA test. What she found changed her life. Her biological father was Dr. Donald Cline—her mother’s fertility doctor. Cline had used his own sperm, not a donors’, to conceive her and over 90 other children.
Ballard’s is just one of many stories of fertility fraud—the topic of last week’s House of Representatives’ bipartisan roundtable hosted by Reps. Stephanie Bice, Mikie Sherrill, and Chrissy Houlahan. The hearing featured six people with stories identical to Ballard’s and one fertility fraud expert.
Fertility fraud, as obscure as the topic may seem, is quite common in the United States.
How? Because fertility clinics and doctors are far too free from accountability.
The Protecting Families from Fertility Fraud Act of 2023 is one response. This bipartisan bill introduced by Bice would criminalize assisted reproductive technology fraud. If a doctor knowingly uses sperm, eggs, or embryos other than what the client had chosen, he would be subject to criminal charges. It would apply to in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, or assisted insemination.
The bill puts the charge under “sexual abuse” crimes.
The act treats a doctor’s action as one of deception, assault, and a lack of consent. As political philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues, modern thought often reduces moral problems to the “language of autonomy, fairness, and individual rights.” Hence, the speakers invoked a lack of consent in describing the harm done by these doctors. Even if the mother consents to an anonymous donor, the child doesn’t.
The bill also provides a chance to consider deeper moral issues linked with anonymous sperm or egg donations.
Most “donor-conceived” people come from an anonymous donor. Because of this, the children have little or no information about them. This includes the donor’s medical history or the existence of other half-siblings.
Even the term “donor-conceived” is misleading. It implies an altruistic donation of the egg or sperm. In reality, Big Fertility has a large and profitable business of buying and selling reproductive cells.
Donor-conceived persons face many tough questions about their identity. This includes their desire to know their biological parent and their biological family’s medical history.
Each person has an inherent desire to know, and know about, her biological parents. Two recent surveys, “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” and “We Are Donor Conceived,” show this desire runs deep for people with anonymous donor parents.
Eve Wiley, one of the speakers at the hearing, shared how she wanted to know her biological father. Her mother helped her find the contact information of the man she selected as Eve’s donor. From there, Eve built a close relationship with this man she thought was her father. Imagine their horror when they found out that he wasn’t the donor; the fertility doctor was.
The medical history aspect is just as important. Ballard explained that she and 90 of her half-siblings conceived with Cline’s sperm have an autoimmune disease. Not only did the doctor secretly use his own sperm, but he gave them a lifelong medical problem. For other donor-conceived persons, anonymous donors don’t include a medical history.
Additionally, children created through in vitro fertilization also have higher rates of autism, cancer, and birth issues like cleft palate to boot. You would think that a medical procedure that creates life would have strong safety measures in place.
Despite the abhorrent actions of Cline and other doctors like him, assisted reproductive technology treatments remain mostly unregulated. This has been true since the first successful in vitro fertilization birth in 1978.
Many of the speakers who testified at the roundtable were in their thirties and forties. This means that the offending doctors began using their own sperm as soon as the technology made it possible.
To date, several states have passed laws that criminalize fertility fraud. Many are like Bice’s Protecting Families from Fertility Fraud Act. In Colorado, for instance, the state outlawed anonymous sperm or egg donations. Lawmakers there believe that children have the right to know who their genetic mother or father is.
Another policy lawmakers should consider is banning the purchase of eggs, sperm, and embryos. Like organ donation, a person should not be able to buy or sell human gametes.
Bice’s bill reflects a growing push on the federal level to criminalize fertility fraud. It is a strong first step in protecting parents who use fertility treatments as well as their children.
It’s unrealistic to think that every financially motivated doctor and clinic will police themselves. It’s time to do what many of them won’t and clamp down on fertility fraud.
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