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Netflix’s “Our Father”: DNA testing, paternity disputes and questions about biological and legal parentage

Netflix’s new 2022 documentary “Our Father” powerfully portrays real-life stories of those who discover through direct-to-consumer DNA testing that their biological father was a well-known fertility doctor and a secret serial sperm donor for over 30 years. The documentary is compellingly told from the perspectives of the donor conceived individuals and their families who learn that their fertility doctor secretly replaced anonymous sperm samples and couples’ own sperm samples with his own. In doing so, it describes the events which uncovered the scale and magnitude of the fertility doctor’s secret and deceptive sperm donation practices, which has so far lead to the discovery of nearly 100 donor conceived offspring, many of whom live in a 25-mile radius of each other in the Indianapolis area in the US. It also shines a light on some of the legal issues and wider implications associated with at-home DNA testing, paternity disputes and emerging concepts of fertility fraud.

Direct-to-consumer DNA testing

The documentary starts by interviewing a lady, Jacoba, in her 40’s who outlines what led her to undertake an at-home DNA test in 2014, describing feelings with which many others can identify. She explains how she “felt different” growing up because she had blonde-hair and blue eyes and everyone else in her family had dark hair, olive skin and dark eyes. She explains how she kept asking her mother whether she was adopted and eventually when she was aged 10, her mother told her that she was conceived with donor sperm. She explains how she “always had this longing for siblings” and how she “just wanted somebody that related to [her]… that was a brother or sister and to have that sibling bond” and that she thought she might have at least two or three siblings because she was donor conceived. She describes how age 18 in 1999 she made some enquiries but commercial DNA testing was not available and she was unsuccessful in finding out more or tracing siblings. As a result, she got on with her life, married and raised children of her own.

Fast forward fifteen years and Jacoba explains how she came across television adverts for DNA testing through 23andme. This led her in the autumn of 2014, aged 35, to take a direct-to-consumer DNA test. She explains that “I felt like it was kind of a bonus if I did find the donor… but my goal was to find a sibling”. She describes how she vividly remembers the day when she received her DNA test results and discovered that she was related to seven donor siblings. She goes on to describe how she felt “immediate excitement with concern… finding out [she] had siblings was amazing but there were eight of us… what’s going on here?”. Her mother had been told that the same sperm donor would not be used more than three times to reduce concerns about consanguinity in their local geographical area. As a result, Jacoba explains “that’s when we started to do our own investigating… and do searches on Ancestry and work on a family tree”. She goes on to describe “feelings of shock…so many emotions…so many questions” when her research found that her parents’ well-known and respected fertility doctor in Indianapolis was her biological father and she had approaching 100 donor siblings.

Paternity disputes

The documentary also portrays the vulnerable positions of the fertility patients who underwent artificial and donor insemination with this well-known fertility doctor in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Many of the women were young, in their 20’s, struggling to conceive or desperate for  children because their husbands were diagnosed infertile. They describe how they felt shocked upon learning that their husband was not their child’s biological father and how they felt violated that their fertility doctor has used his own sperm sample instead of an anonymous donor. One mother states “I wish that walk on no one” and “there are parts of me that wish that I never had to deal with infertility”.

The documentary also includes testimony from others who learned that their parents’ fertility doctor is their biological father despite their mother believing for decades that her husband’s sperm was used. One donor conceived individual describes it as “something in my gut I just couldn’t let go even though my mother said it didn’t apply to me as her husband’s sperm was used and not a donor”.  She goes on to describe how “it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through” and how the DNA test results “just completely washes away your identity” and “you really have no idea who you are anymore”. Another describes how on receiving her DNA test results it all hit her and she just “sat and stared for the rest of the day” and “then for the next couple of weeks [she] had a complete identity crisis and [she] could not look in the mirror.”

The documentary goes on to chart the long and emotional journey undertaken by these donor conceived siblings and their families in their pursuit for the truth and justice. They describe their conversations with their own families and their struggles to make the fertility doctor accountable because his actions were not punishable by then current law in the US. Others explain that a high proportion of them have auto-immune disorders and that they have since discovered that the fertility doctor in question was himself diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis which would have prevented him from becoming an official donor. Others speak compellingly about their worries for their children when it comes to dating. One individual describes how she knew one of her donor siblings because “her husband taught my daughter on the softball teams” and how her “daughter and my daughter play basketball together”. Another describes their fears that they will find out that they have dated a donor sibling in the past and their belief that it’s only a question of time before this becomes a reality.

DNA testing, parentage and the law

Netflix’s documentary “Our Father” brings into focus real-life stories about people’s quest for truth about their biological parentage, genetic and family history and search for genetic siblings and relatives. As this documentary shows, a decision to undertake a direct-to-consumer test can come about for all sorts of reasons including: a history of sperm donation, infertility treatment, the result of being given a DNA test as a present to explore family ancestry and even a deep-seated sense that an individual’s family history harbours a secret of some sort.

Whilst Netflix’s “Our Father” documentary largely focuses on the human angle, it is important to bear in mind that direct-to-consumer DNA tests can also create a range of wider complex issues about legal and biological parentage, legal status, rights, responsibilities and  birth certificates. A biological parent is not always a legal parent. As such, resolving issues about biological and legal parentage can create complex legal and practical issues depending upon the circumstances of conception, available evidence as well as the operation of common law or statute.

Legal parentage is significant because it creates a legal relationship between a parent and a child under English law and legal relationships between wider family members (e.g. grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins). Legal parentage creates financial rights and responsibilities, including inheritance rights. It governs birth registration and birth certificate arrangements and can give rise to a claim for citizenship, nationality and a passport. It also confers legal status and identity upon a child and informs and shapes their understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Direct-to-consumer DNA test results can also generate legal proceedings to seek to:

  • Determine an individual’s biological and legal parentage following an at-home  DNA test (e.g. seek a court order for DNA testing and a Declaration of Parentage).
  • Rectify an individual’s birth certificate (e.g. add or remove a parent’s name).
  • Address omission or errors in completion of patient HFEA consent forms at UK fertility clinics, calling into question the legal parentage of a non-birth parent for their child.
  • Resolve a dispute about paternity/legal parentage and financial provision for a child or individual.

As such, expert fertility and family law advice provides legal and practical advice and assistance to help individuals and families navigate direct-to-consumer genetic testing and the associated legal issues and implications. It can:

  • Advise on options for opening and managing dialogue with biological parents and relatives.
  • Provide expert legal advice in respect of legal parentage claims.
  • Advise, represent or defend individuals in an application for a Declaration of Parentage.
  • Create tailored legal action plan to proactively manage complex family situations and dynamics.

Do you need help dealing with a biological and legal parentage dispute? If you would like to discuss your situation or you would like specialist legal parentage, fertility and family law advice contact Louisa Ghevaert by email louisa@louisaghevaertassociates.co.uk  or by telephone +44 (0)20 7965 8399.

 

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