Fertility and accountability
Donor fraud, other issues challenging the legal system
Jacoba Ballard was conceived in a brick office building in Indianapolis when fertility doctor Donald Cline inseminated her mother with his own sperm instead of the donor sperm he had promised.
To Ballard, it was an offense akin to rape — one that Cline is suspected of repeating with as many as 50 other women. But the law in Indiana, as in most other states, was not written to account for such a crime. So Cline was charged with obstruction of justice and accused of false advertising and “immoral conduct” in the delivery of services. He lost his medical license, was fined $500 and received a year’s probation.
“My mother was violated. He took advantage of her in one of the most vulnerable moments of her life,” Ballard said. The sentence, she said, was “not enough to send a message.”
Now Ballard, 38, is part of a growing movement pushing for stronger safeguards on assisted reproduction and tougher penalties when things go wrong. Led by donor-conceived people who have discovered that their very existence was marred by fraud or mistakes, this movement is raising tough questions about the responsibility of the fertility industry that the legal system is ill-equipped to answer.
In Ottawa, for example, donor offspring are lobbying for a ban on anonymous sales of reproductive material following revelations that a fertility doctor there used his sperm to impregnate 11 women. In Utah, the state legislature has expanded the definition of incest to include a person who knowingly provides sperm or a human egg to a related person for in vitro fertilization.
And in Indiana, Ballard and other people sired by Cline are lobbying state legislators to create a new category of crime known as fertility fraud that would punish the intentional misuse of reproductive material with up to 2½ years in prison.
Sean Tipton, chief policy officer for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said errors and fraud in the industry are rare and are easily addressed under existing laws. Clinics maintain rigorous safety protocols to ensure that the correct genetic material is transferred, that donors are properly screened and that medical workers adhere to stringent ethical standards, he said.
Still, many families who have borne children through assisted reproduction — especially using donor sperm or eggs — have struggled to recover from serious lapses, including embryos switched before birth, babies sired by the “wrong” father, and children who inherit serious, undisclosed medical issues.
Justice is difficult to find, or even define, in such situations. Prosecutors and the courts have been reluctant to weigh in, especially when a child is healthy. Taking sides, in their view, could label a child “damaged” and make an implicit judgment about the relative worth of one life over another.
Many of the children, meanwhile, are left grappling with a lifetime of trauma, knowing their existence is not what their parents intended.
Payton Zinkon was 3 when her name made headlines around the world. Because of a lab mix-up, she was conceived with sperm from Midwest Sperm Bank Donor No. 330, who is African-American, instead of Donor No. 380, who is white.
Her story came to light in 2014, when her mother, Jennifer Cramblett, and her partner, Amanda Zinkon, sued the sperm bank under Ohio’s “wrongful birth” statute, arguing that while they loved their daughter dearly, they were ill-equipped to raise a biracial child.
The “wrongful birth” law typically applies when a medical provider fails to provide adequate information or counseling about the risks of having a child with a serious illness.
In her lawsuit, Cramblett — who grew up in an all-white environment — described “numerous challenges and external pressures associated with an unplanned transracial parentchild relationship.”
After the Illinois sperm bank apologized and issued a partial refund, Cramblett’s lawsuit was thrown out by a DuPage County judge in 2016. The Illinois Appellate Court upheld that decision in June 2017.
Midwest Sperm Bank declined to comment on the case. The company sent Cramblett a refund check for the six vials of sperm she had purchased and a letter of apology in 2011, while Cramblett was still pregnant with Payton.
Now 6, Payton is by all accounts adored by her family. She is unaware of the controversy, and her family hopes to shield her from it for as long as possible.
Cramblett said she is disheartened that stories about the case have focused on race rather than the fertility industry’s failures.
“All I wanted was accountability,” she said. “They made a mistake and refused to acknowledge their mistake.”
The prosecution of Cline, the Indiana fertility doctor, is one in a string of recent scandals involving doctors using their own sperm to father children with their patients.
Ballard, an emergency medical worker, first came to suspect
Cline was her biological father in 2015 after she took a mail-away test and found that some of his relatives were her relatives too. She took her concerns to a few half-siblings she had met online.
Cline’s attorney declined to comment on the case.
Along with several half-siblings, Ballard has since filed com- plaints with the Marion County prosecutor and the Indiana attorney general. She has found roughly 50 people born between 1974 and 1987 who believe Cline is their father.
Among them is Matthew White, 35, an environmental consultant who learned he was donor-conceived when he was 15. Growing up, he said, he and his mother would often pass the building where Cline’s clinic was located, and she would tell him how happy she was the day she found out she was pregnant with him.
Because his family, which includes both a mother and a father, always felt complete, White said he never sought out information about his donor. But then, while browsing the Internet in 2016, he spotted a news story about Cline and noticed that an accompanying picture of the doctor looked strikingly like him.
“I was thinking, ‘What is going on? This can’t be true,’ ” he recalled, adding that the discovery left his happy childhood memories marred by a “black scar” of deception.
Together, Ballard, White and other half-siblings lobbied members of the Indiana state Senate to introduce the fertility fraud bill. The measure died in committee earlier this year, but the group is pressing legislators to introduce it again when the legislature convenes in January.
Cline “knew what he was doing,” White said. “It was calculated, and he got away with it. We can’t let this continue to happen again.”
Matthew White helps his kids with homework in Carmel, Ind. At center is his mom, Liz, who was inseminated with her fertility doctor’s sperm to conceive her son 35-plus years ago. As accusations against Dr. Donald Cline increased, he faced criminal charges and lost his medical license.
White and some of his half-siblings also fathered by Cline have lobbied Indiana lawmakers to introduce a fertility fraud bill.