Who’s Your Daddy? The Case of the Dishonest Fertility Doctor

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UPDATE: On June 2, 2017 a Dutch court approved the request by the 22 litigants involved in the case to have DNA tests conducted on various items seized by officials from Dr Karbaat’s home after he passed away. The results of the DNA profile will remain sealed until the children in question can show there is justifiable cause to believe he is their father in court.

When women turned to Dr. Jan Karbaat, head of the largest sperm bank in the Netherlands, they thought he could help them have the baby they so desperately wanted. From the early 1980s to 2009, many did get their wish, as Karbaat’s clinic conceived an estimated 10,000 children using In Vitro Fertilization. But that wasn’t the whole story. It turns out the doctor, who billed himself as a “pioneer in the field of fertilization,” wasn’t being entirely honest about the sperm used to conceive those kids.

People started to ask questions about the clinic in the early 2000s after a set of mismatched twins (one child was white and the other not) was conceived at the clinic to a Caucasian couple that was unable to have children. As the Dutch government started to investigate, more discrepancies appeared. Several families in online forums commented on the fact that their children all bore a striking resemblance to each other; subsequent testing revealed that at least two of the children were related to a Surinamese man who had a 17-year history of donating at the clinic despite regulations that stated that no man may father more than six children. There are now over 40 children that have been linked to the man.

Nearly a decade before the investigation, new regulations governing the Dutch sperm industry were putting a crimp on the ability of the clinic to function. In 1996 a law banning the payment of donors saw a marked decrease in the ability of all sperm clinics in the country to access fresh seed. Then a 2004 law that required clinics to release the identities of their donors to the children conceived really slowed the flow of sperm. Karbaat was quoted in an interview in 2004 as saying that he was forced to run newspaper ads searching for new donors, and was struggling to stay open.

When the government closed Karbaat’s clinic in 2009, they cited poor document keeping, falsified records, and clients being lied to about the identity of their prospective donors. In 2015 a government commission declared that his record keeping was so bad that none of the donor’s identities could be reliably determined under law.

In the years since the clinic’s closing, as clients and children of the sperm bank searched each other out online, another disturbing detail seemed to emerge — many of the children conceived at the clinic bore a striking resemblance to the good doctor himself. As more children and their parents found each other, many noted that they had the same blue eye color, or that their faces resembled the doctor, and not their donor fathers. Several of the mothers reported that Karbaat would leave the exam room to go “get a fresh sample” and would return with sperm that they believe he had just created in the next room.

When the doctor passed away early this year, a group of 22 plaintiffs — 12 adults and 10 parents of minors — filed a lawsuit to retrieve DNA from personal objects officials seized from his house to determine if he is the father. One of the plaintiff’s in the lawsuit, Moniek Wassenaar, 36, said she had met with Karbaat in 2010 to determine if he was her father. Friends of her had pointed out the strong resemblance between photos of the two online. She told Dutch media in an interview that he told her that it was possible that he was her father, and that “he might have fathered up to 60 children.” During the same meeting she said he was proud of what he had done, that “he was in good health and intelligent, so he could share some of his genes with the world. He saw it as something noble. He had no concept of ethics and minimized the impact on the children.”

As the court determines what the next steps are, they also have to take into account that the doctor asked that no DNA testing be conducted upon his body in his will. The court will make a preliminary ruling on June 2, and several mothers and children might be one step closer to determining who their actual father is.