Why Do Fertility Doctors Use Their Own Sperm?

A Virginia fertility doctor, Cecil Jacobson, was found to have fathered at least seven children by impregnating his patients without their knowledge. It’s thought that he may have fathered even more.

But how common is the practice of doctors using their own sperm? And why do they do it?

Why They Do It

In order to conceive a child, the male and female partner must produce sperm. This sperm must then be combined with eggs in a laboratory to create embryos that can be implanted into the woman’s uterus. Sperm is often donated by friends, family members or strangers to help couples who are struggling to conceive. The problem is that sometimes fertility doctors are accused of using their own sperm to inseminate their patients.

This is called “fertility fraud.” It is more common than you might think, and it can affect a wide variety of people. In 2014, a Utah fertility doctor was caught after swapping his own sperm for that of his IVF patients. The patients had no idea, and the breach was only discovered when the daughter of one patient took a 23andMe test to learn about her family history.

The disgraced doctor, Martin D. Yussman, was charged with 94 cases of insemination, but it’s hard to know how many other people were victims. Some of these doctors have lost their licenses, but others — including Rochester’s Morris Wortman, who is currently the subject of a lawsuit — are still practicing medicine.

It’s not entirely clear why these doctors choose to do this. They might be motivated by greed or a desire to control the fertility process. But there are also theories that this behavior is rooted in a number of sociological principles, from Lord Acton’s “power corrupts” to the old adage “follow the money.”

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Legal Issues

The global fertility industry is a hugely profitable, highly unregulated sector. So when stories of doctors using their own sperm to inseminate patients pop up, the vast majority of them are never prosecuted, despite the fact that it can be a criminal offense. Most states don’t even have laws prohibiting this practice. The New York Times reports that before DNA testing became common, Indiana fertility specialist Donald Cline used his own sperm to impregnate dozens of women in the 1970s and 1980s. Those “doctor-conceived” children found out the truth with the help of an at-home DNA test, and the doctor later pleaded to two felony obstruction of justice charges and surrendered his medical license.

Several other cases have made the news, including Cecil Jacobson in Virginia, who may have fathered up to 75 children without his patients’ knowledge or consent; Kim McMorries in Texas, who had at least 48 of those same children (she did not respond to the Times through her attorney); and Jan Karbaat in the Netherlands, who might have fathered as many as 200. The cases are harrowing, but they keep coming up because the sperm donor limit hasn’t changed with genetic testing becoming so popular and widely available.

The case of Rochester fertility doctor Morris Wortman highlights that this practice is still more common than most people would think. He used his own sperm to inseminate some of his female patients, allegedly telling them the sperm was donated by a local resident. But that wasn’t true, and the patients ended up with a complicated family history of mental illness and genetic predisposition to breast cancer that they weren’t expecting.

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Social Issues

Fertility treatments are often complex and emotionally taxing for patients and their families, and the use of a fertility doctor’s own sperm can exacerbate those issues. It raises questions about trust, transparency, and autonomy in the process of creating a family. It also has a significant impact on children conceived through such methods. They may struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, and anxiety, and be at a higher risk for certain health conditions, including genetic ones.

When cases of fraud, like that of the disgraced Indianapolis fertility specialist Donald Cline, surface, they spark conversations about how to prevent similar situations. One option is to increase oversight at fertility clinics and sperm banks, but that may not be enough.

Another possibility is to pass laws prohibiting fertility doctors from using their own sperm to impregnate unwitting patients. That has already been done in some states, such as Idaho and Texas. But others, such as New York, do not have such laws in place.

Despite the efforts of activists, these laws are unlikely to change anything quickly. That’s because many instances of fertility fraud took place decades ago, and the statutes of limitations mean that doctors cannot be prosecuted. But even if the law was changed, it would be hard to put an end to such incidents. Especially as DNA tests from companies like Ancestry continue to reveal networks of half-siblings in unexpected places.

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Personal Issues

In addition to raising important ethical questions, the use of fertility doctors’ own sperm also impacts patients and their families. Learning that their physician fathered children on their own is emotionally traumatizing, and it can lead to a host of other issues. Fortunately, many such cases have come to light thanks to genetic testing and social media. But there is still much work to do, particularly when it comes to ensuring transparency and accountability in the fertility industry.

The most troubling part of the stories that surface is how often such fraud goes unpunished. Most of the time, “prosecutors do not have the opportunity to bring a case because the statute of limitations has expired,” according to FindLaw. That’s what happened with Indiana doctor Donald Cline, who inseminated at least three dozen women without their consent or knowledge. It wasn’t until a woman took an AncestryDNA test that he was found out.

And while the majority of patients who choose to use donated sperm are not the offspring of the fertility doctor, it could happen in the future. That’s because new techniques for helping couples who need a man’s sperm are on the horizon. Until then, there is always the risk that fertility specialists will be tempted to use their own semen. But if they do, the consequences are far more serious than just losing their license.

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