'Fertility fraud' scandals raise broader questions about IVF, ethicist says

'Fertility fraud' scandals raise broader questions about IVF, ethicist says

Technician does control check of the in vitro fertilization process using a microscope. Via Shutterstock
Technician does control check of the in vitro fertilization process using a microscope. Via Shutterstock

.- Lawmakers in three states have passed laws to criminalize “fertility fraud” following a series of scandals in which fertility doctors impregnated women with their own sperm without their knowledge or consent. But amid renewed discussion of the fertility industry, one ethicist told CNA that the laws do not go far enough.

On June 4, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law Senate Bill 1259, making the use of reproductive material from an unagreed upon donor a form of sexual assault, and could require an offending doctor to register as a sex offender. The bill was unanimously passed by both the Texas House and Senate, and went into effect on July 1. 

The Texas law is unique in classifing donor-deception as sexual assault. 

Legislation in Indiana, passed in May of this year, made it a felony for someone to misrepresent a medical procedure, device, or drug, including reproductive material. A plaintiff may also sue the medical professional for damages. Similar laws were passed in California in 2011.

The Indiana law passed after it was discovered that a fertility specialist, Dr. Donald Cline, had used his own sperm to father at least 61 children in the 1970s and 1980s. The estimated 36 mothers were unaware that he was the source of the donor sperm.

In 2017, eight years after he retired, Cline was sentenced to a one-year suspended sentence, and surrendered his medical license. He pled guilty to two counts of felony obstruction of justice, though his professional conduct was not yet a crime in Indiana. 

Cline’s case is not unique. Doctors in 12 states and several countries have been found to have fathered children with women who did not consent to being inseminated with their own doctor’s sperm. 

Dr. John Di Camillo, an ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA that scandals only served to highlight the deeper problems with the fertility industry.

“Interventions that bypass or replace the conjugal act, on the other hand, such as in vitro fertilization, are always contrary to human dignity,” Di Camillo said.

While it is understandable that a woman or couple would feel violated by a doctor’s betrayal of their trust in the selection of the sperm donor, Di Camillo told CNA that “the very act of seeking a sperm donor is already a betrayal of any child that might be conceived.”

The child has the right to be born from and within a marriage, where the child’s biological parents are identifiable,” he said.

Such cases of abuse, he said, were rooted in society’s changing views on the nature of childbearing, as well as from the “morally corrupt” practice of in vitro fertilization. 

“When a child is no longer understood as a gift that a married couple receives as the direct fruit of their act of mutual self-giving love, and is instead perceived as a product that can be obtained human procreation becomes exposed to an endless chain of ethical abuses,” he said.

While the fertility industry continues to grow, the availability of commercial DNA testing has meant many previously unknown cases of abuse have come to light.

Sixteen years ago in Texas, Eve Wiley discovered, at the age of 16, that she had been conceived with donor sperm. She tracked down the man who she thought was the donor, and developed what she described as a “beautiful father-daughter relationship.” The man even officiated her wedding. 

After taking a consumer DNA test in 2017 and again in 2018, she learned the truth: the man was not her father. In fact, her father was Dr. Kim McMorries-the doctor who had inseminated her mother. 

McMorries had told Wiley’s mother that he was using donor sperm from California. Her mother had requested a donor from far away, as she was concerned that her potential child could eventually date a half-sibling if a local donor were used. 

Wiley has since been featured on national television programs, and spoke in committee hearings in favor of the Texas law. 

While Di Camillo is supportive of the Indiana and Texas laws, he told CNA that they do not do enough to address the source of the problem: the fertility industry. 

“I would certainly support any legislation outlawing this type of deception as a form of incremental legislation curbing abusive sequelae of the abusive practice of IVF,” he said. 

“The bigger issue is that in vitro fertilization and all forms of assisted reproduction involving donor gametes should be outlawed altogether. The root of the moral problem needs to be addressed.”

Tags: IVF, National Catholic Bioethics Center