Sperm Donor Fraud: One Year On from Netflix’s Documentary “Our Father”

14 May 2023

The impact of sperm donor fraud and ongoing work to counter this was addressed at the American Academy of Adoption & Assisted Reproduction Attorneys (AAAA) Huntingdon Beach, California, Annual Conference from 30 April – 2 May 2023. This session was led by Jacoba Ballard, who featured in the Netflix 2022 Documentary “Our Father”, being one of the first to suspect that well-known US fertility doctor Dr. Donald Cline had secretly replaced anonymous sperm samples and couples’ own sperm samples with his own.

Photographs feature: Jacoba Ballard and AAAA Fellow and lawyer Louisa Ghevaert from the United Kingdom.

Jacoba opened the AAAA session by explaining that every time she publicly speaks about sperm donor fraud, she does so for her own mother (who passed away last year) and other women who have been the victims of fertility fraud. She explained that at age 10, her mother told her that she was donor conceived although she was advised not to share this at the time. Jacoba recalled completely understanding this and describing how it answered some questions. However, it left other unanswered questions about her biological father and whether she had any biological half-siblings (since DNA testing was not readily available then). Furthermore, she explained that from birth she had always had periods of being unwell and had gaps in her medical history.

Jacoba explained that her mother, like other women, did not consent to artificial conception with Dr Donald Cline’s sperm. As a result, Jacoba went on to explain how she has been (and continues to be) greatly impacted by fertility fraud, having undertaken a direct-to-consumer DNA test eight and a half years ago and uncovered the scale and magnitude of Dr Cline’s deceptive sperm donation practices. In particular, she highlighted the turmoil, as well as the physical and mental toll, it has taken upon her (and others) having gone on to discover that she has approaching 100 donor conceived siblings. She also explained how her enquiries and quest for justice had brought her and her mother closer together, although at the same time she was concerned that it was causing distress for Dr Cline’s wife and his own children which was difficult.

The AAAA session went on to highlight the ongoing important work being undertaken to to enact “Donor Fraud Legislation” at a state and Federal level in the US, as well as the lawsuits and legal strategies associated with these cases.

You can read more about Jacoba Ballard’s story and Netflix’s 2022 documentary and associated issues in previous blog “Netflix’s Our Father: DNA testing, paternity disputes and questions about biological and legal parentage”.

DNA testing and legal and biological parenthood 

Direct-to-consumer DNA tests can raise complex issues about legal and biological parentage and parenthood, legal status, rights, responsibilities and birth certificates. A biological parent is not always a legal parent. As such, resolving issues about biological and legal parenthood can create challenging legal and practical issues depending upon the circumstances of conception, available evidence and the operation of common law or statute.

Legal parentage and parenthood 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 parenthood 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.

Clarity about biological and genetic parenthood is important too because it can help connect individuals with genetic relatives and inform and shape their understanding of themselves and their place in the world. It can also help provide understanding about personal ethnicity, religious, social and cultural heritage. Furthermore, it can provide understanding about genetic and medical history for individuals and future generations of their biological offspring as well.

Direct-to-consumer DNA test results can therefore give rise to legal proceedings to seek to:

  • Determine an individual’s biological and legal parentage and parenthood 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 parenthood of a non-birth parent for their child.
  • Resolve a dispute about paternity/legal parentage and financial provision for a child or individual.

Do you need a fertility or family lawyer or help dealing with a biological and legal parenthood dispute or an application for a Declaration of Parentage? 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  or by telephone +44 (0)20 7965 8399.

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