COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fertility treatments can costs tens of thousands of dollars for parents eager to start families of their own, but DNA tests are quickly unraveling the lives of some of those who used sperm donors.
Victims of alleged fertility fraud say they put their trust in a doctor's hands. Now, they are dealing with the aftermath of an act that some may see as unethical but is not currently illegal in Ohio.
Through over-the-counter DNA testing, Carrie Lauterbach, a nurse, found out she has six half-siblings. This shouldn't be a problem, because she knew her parents used a sperm donor — but she was in shock when she learned in 2020 that the sperm wasn't anonymous.
"I did not know it was the doctor," Lauterbach said. "The doctor used their own sperm, instead of a medical student or an anonymous donor, that was promised."
The parents of Lauterbach and her full biological sibling, plus her six half-siblings, all used Dr. Stephen Hornstein, a prominent obstetrician, according to an investigation by News 5 Cleveland's sister station WCPO News 9in Cincinnati.
Although rare, “daddy doctor” cases have started to pop up around the United States, with Lauterbach testifying at the Ohio Statehouse about her experience.
"The act itself is unethical, but the fact that it is not illegal is shocking," she said in her testimony.
In Ohio, a doctor impregnating a patient with their own sperm without their consent is legal in terms of a criminal offense. Actually, more than 40 states don't consider it a crime.
"In the past, at least when this did happen, people probably didn't think it would be discovered," Adoption Network Cleveland's Betsie Norris said. "It's really important that Ohio joined the states that are currently making this illegal."
As Ohio advances in society, the bills need to keep up, she added.
Representative Jena Powell, a Republican from Arcanum, and a bipartisan group of legislators are hoping to grant the wish of victims and advocates like Lauterbach and Norris.
House Bill 64creates the crime of fraudulent assisted reproduction, prohibiting a licensed health care professional from purposely using a sperm donor that the patient did not consent to.
This would be a third-degree felony and would allow for the families impacted to sue the fertility doctor for up to $10,000. There is also a potential prison time up to five years. If found guilty, the provider’s medical license could be revoked.
"We all can agree that it is wrong for a fertility doctor to knowingly impregnate a patient with his own sperm instead of that of the patient’s requested sperm donor," Powell said in her sponsor testimony. "This bill simply joins other states in making fertility fraud a crime and thus allowing legal recourse for those families affected by it."
Lauterbach and her family aren’t able to get the same amount of justice, because the doctor, her biological father, has died.
"It's more about just knowing that others will be protected in the future," she said. "Especially being in the medical field, just the unethical nature of the fraud, especially fertility fraud and knowing the vulnerable inability of women who are seeking fertility treatment — just the actions of a doctor to violate trust and ethical standards in this manner — I think they should automatically lose their license."
The bill has another hearing on Wednesday, where it could be voted out of the House Criminal Justice committee and into the full House for a vote.
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