“I slept with my half-brother”: A woman’s shocking experience highlights the lax regulation of the US fertility industry

Victoria Hill never quite understood why she differed so much from her father, both in appearance and temperament. The 39-year-old licensed clinical social worker from suburban Connecticut used to joke that maybe she was the mailman’s child.

However, what started as a humorous remark took a serious turn. Concerned about a health issue and puzzled by the absence of similar symptoms in her parents, Hill bought a DNA testing kit from 23andMe a few years ago and sent her DNA for analysis.

What should have been a routine exploration of her ancestry turned into a shocking revelation: she discovered she had many more siblings than just the brother she grew up with – the count now stands at 22. Some of these newfound siblings contacted her and shared more startling news: Hill’s biological father was not the man who raised her but a fertility doctor who allegedly used his own sperm to inseminate her mother, apparently without her mother’s consent.

However, the most devastating discovery came this summer when Hill learned that one of her newfound siblings was her high school boyfriend – someone she could have easily married.

“I was traumatized by this,” Hill said in an exclusive interview. “Now I’m looking at pictures of people thinking, well, if he could be my sibling, anybody could be my sibling.”

Hill’s experience appears to be one of the most extreme cases of fertility fraud, where fertility doctors deceive their female patients and families by secretly using their own sperm instead of that of a donor. It also demonstrates how the lack of regulation in the fertility industry can lead to large groups of siblings and, in the worst-case scenario, accidental incest.

Advocates for new laws that criminalize fertility fraud argue that Hill’s story is groundbreaking. “This was the first time where we’ve had a confirmed case of someone actually dating, someone being intimate with someone who was their half-sibling,” said Jody Madeira, a law professor at Indiana University and an expert on fertility fraud. A investigation into fertility fraud nationwide revealed that most states, including Connecticut, have no laws against it. Victims of this deception struggle to find recourse, and accused doctors often have the upper hand in court, leading to few consequences and, in some instances, continued practice, according to documents and interviews with fertility experts, lawmakers, and individuals fathered by sperm donors.

It was also discovered that Hill’s romantic involvement with her half-brother was not an isolated incident within her newfound sibling group; similar interactions occurred with other individuals in their community who turned out to be siblings.

With the rise of do-it-yourself DNA kits, donor-conceived individuals are becoming amateur sleuths about their origins. This subset of the American population, estimated at one million people, is part of a larger movement seeking to expose distressing practices in the fertility industry, such as large sibling groups, unethical doctors, absent biological fathers, and a lack of information about their biological family’s medical history.

This movement has been instrumental in passing about a dozen new state laws over the past four years. However, the legal landscape remains inconsistent, and critics often liken the US fertility industry to the “Wild West” due to its lack of regulation compared to other Western countries.

“Nail salons are more regulated than the fertility industry,” said Eve Wiley, a prominent advocate who discovered her origins through fertility fraud.

It has been confirmed that more than 30 doctors across the United States have been caught or accused of secretly using their own sperm to impregnate their patients, while advocates claim there are at least 80 such cases.

Accountability for this deception has been scarce. The lack of laws criminalizing fertility fraud until recently has meant that no doctors have faced criminal charges for this behavior. In 2019, Indiana became the second state, more than 20 years after California, to pass a law making fertility fraud a felony.

Even in civil cases settled out of court, affected families typically sign non-disclosure agreements, effectively protecting the doctors from public scrutiny.

Meanwhile, some doctors who were exposed were allowed to retain their medical licenses.

In Kentucky, retired fertility doctor Marvin Yussman admitted to using his own sperm to inseminate about half a dozen patients who were unaware of his actions at the time. One patient filed a complaint with the state’s medical licensure board when her daughter, born in 1976, discovered through Ancestry.com that Yussman was likely her biological father.

“I feel betrayed that Dr. Yussman knowingly deceived me and my husband about the origin of the sperm he injected into my body,” the woman wrote in a 2019 letter to the board. “Although I realize Dr. Yussman did not break any laws as such, I certainly feel his actions were unconscionable and depraved.”

In his response to the medical board, Yussman explained that during that era, fresh sperm was preferred over frozen sperm, which required donors to adhere to a schedule.

“On very rare occasions when the donor did not show and no frozen specimen was available, I used my own sperm if I otherwise would have been an appropriate donor: appropriate blood type, race, physical characteristics,” Yussman wrote.

He mentioned that some of his biological children have expressed gratitude for their existence and have even sent him photos of their own children. Yussman, noting that he didn’t remember the woman who filed the complaint, said his policy decades ago was to inform patients that physicians could be among the possible donors, although neither he nor the complainant could provide records clarifying the protocol.

The medical board declined to discipline him, citing insufficient evidence, according to case documents. Yussman declined to comment.

The case that brought fertility fraud to national attention was that of Dr. Donald Cline, who fathered at least 90 children in Indiana. Cline’s case led lawmakers to pass legislation outlawing fertility fraud, but the law was not retroactive, so he was never prosecuted under it. However, he was convicted of obstruction of justice for lying to investigators in the state attorney general’s office who briefly looked into the case. Following his conviction in 2018, Cline surrendered his medical license. Cline’s lawyer did not respond to an email seeking comment.

A documentary about Cline released on Netflix in 2022 inspired two members of Congress, Reps. Stephanie Bice, a Republican from Oklahoma, and Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat from New Jersey, to co-author the first federal bill outlawing fertility fraud. The bill, called the Protecting Families from Fertility Fraud Act, would establish a new federal sexual-assault crime for knowingly misrepresenting the nature or source of DNA used in assisted reproductive procedures and other fertility treatments. The bill has garnered support from 28 Republicans and 20 Democrats, and there is a renewed effort to push it through Congress.

A group of advocates, including Hill, plans to go to Washington, D.C., to support the bill.

Passage of the bill would not mean that any of the doctors already accused of fertility fraud would go to prison, as the crimes occurred before the law existed. However, the measure would create more avenues for civil litigation in such cases.

Critics of the push for better regulation in the fertility industry argue that it could make it harder for the LGBTQ community, which makes up a significant portion of donor-recipient clientele, to form families. “I think we should pause before creating additional criminal liability for people practicing reproductive medicine,” said Katherine L. Kraschel, assistant professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University. “It gives me great pause … to say we want the government to try to step in and regulate what amounts to a reproductive choice.”

Some experts suggest that the introduction of at-home DNA tests by companies like 23andMe and Ancestry has largely eradicated fertility fraud in contemporary times.

Julia T. Woodward, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor in psychiatry and OBGYN at the Duke University Health System, stated in an email, “To my knowledge, the majority of fertility fraud cases took place before 2000. I think it is highly unlikely any person would engage in such practices today (it would be too easy to be exposed). So this part of the landscape has improved significantly.”

However, activists in the donor-conceived community still advocate for laws, partly to create avenues for civil litigation and also to send a message to any medical professional who might consider such actions due to the lack of accountability.

“Let’s say arguably that it doesn’t happen anymore,” remarked Laura High, a donor-conceived individual and comedian with over 600,000 followers on TikTok, who has become somewhat of a watchdog for the fertility industry on social media. “Pass the legislation just in case. Why not just for the optics – just to show support for the victims? Let’s just do this. We know it’s never going to happen anymore, but let’s just make this illegal.”

The absence of a law in Connecticut seems to have posed a challenge for two siblings seeking redress for what they claim is a case of fertility fraud.

The siblings, a brother and sister, filed a lawsuit against OBGYN Narendra Tohan of New Britain in 2021, alleging that he deceived their mothers by using his own sperm in the fertility treatments.

Tohan successfully derailed the lawsuit with an innovative defense, arguing that it constitutes a “wrongful life” case, a concept typically applied to individuals born with severe life-limiting conditions, which is not recognized in Connecticut. Tohan, who is still practicing, did not respond to an email or call seeking comment. The siblings are appealing the ruling.

Jody Madeira, an expert in fertility fraud from Indiana University, criticized the “wrongful life” decision as absurd.

“In fertility fraud, no parent is saying that – no parent is saying I would have gotten an abortion,” she said. “Every parent is saying, ‘I love my child. I just wish that my wishes would have been respected and my doctor wouldn’t have used his sperm.'”

Dr. Burton Caldwell, who declined request for an interview, is facing a lawsuit from one of his apparent biological children, despite knowing that it will be challenging without a fertility fraud law in place. Janine Pierson and her mother, Doreen Pierson, accuse Caldwell – who ceased practicing in the early 2000s – of impregnating Doreen with his own sperm after falsely informing her that the donor would be a Yale medical student.

Janine Pierson, a social worker, was unaware of any siblings until she took a 23andMe test in the summer of 2022 and discovered she had 19 siblings (a number that has since increased to 22).

“It was like my entire life just came to this screeching halt,” she stated.

Despite the lack of a fertility fraud law in Connecticut, Pierson decided to pursue the lawsuit.

“It shouldn’t just be, you know, the Wild West where these doctors can just do whatever it is that they want,” she said.

Hill is closely following the case of her newly discovered half-sister.

For her, the initial shock was discovering that the man she thought was her biological father wasn’t. Although her mother had informed her when she was younger that she had sought help conceiving at a fertility clinic, she also falsely claimed that the doctor had used her father’s sperm.

A few years ago, when Hill learned that Caldwell appeared to be her biological father, she consulted lawyers about filing a lawsuit but was advised that she didn’t have a strong case, so she chose not to pursue it. Now, she says, her statute of limitations is nearing expiration.

Last year, Hill received another devastating revelation.

In May, while celebrating her 20-year high school reunion with her three closest friends, she shared the story of how she discovered her biological father. Everyone was intrigued except one person – her former boyfriend. He seemed to be pondering something and then mentioned that his parents, too, had sought assistance conceiving from a fertility clinic.

A few months later, in July, as Hill was preparing for a summer vacation with her husband and two young children, her ex-boyfriend sent her a text with a screenshot showing their 23andMe connection.

“You are my sister,” he said.

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