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March 3, 2020

One woman's struggle to trust the fertility industry that had betrayed her mother

Daily Briefing

    A few years ago, Heather Woock discovered that she is one of dozens of people who'd been conceived with sperm from her mother's fertility doctor—a revelation that unsettled Woock, who was about to embark on her own journey with the fertility industry, Lauren Bavis and Jake Harper report for Side Effects Public Media.  

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    'I went through an identity crisis'

    After Woock submitted her DNA to Ancestry, a consumer-testing site, she started receiving emails about people who claimed they might be her half-siblings.

    Eventually, Woock learned that her mother's fertility doctor, Donald Cline, was her actual biological father, and she's not alone. It turns out Cline has more than 60 biological children, and that count is growing, Bavis and Harper report.

    The news was shocking. Until then, Woock was not aware that her mother had used artificial insemination in the 1980s to conceive, and her mother had no idea Cline had used his own sperm in the procedure.

    "I went through an identity crisis," Woock said. "I couldn't look in the mirror and think about, 'Where did my eyes come from? Where did my hair color come from? I didn't even want to think about any of that."

    Turning to the system that 'betrayed her mom'

    For Woock, the timing of the discovery was particularly distressing. Woock was trying to have children herself, and after six months of frustration she decided to seek care at a fertility clinic, turning to an "industry that had so badly betrayed her mom," Bavis and Harper report.

    Woock recalled, "I had to fill out all this paperwork, and there's a slot that says kind of like, 'Is there anything else you'd like to share?'"

    Wook ultimately decided to move forward with her treatment, but she set clear ground rules with her fertility clinic, Bavis and Harper write. For instance, Wook requested a female doctor, and requested that the doctor be present in the room during every appointment and oversee anything that occurred.

    Could fertility fraud happen today?

    Cline isn't the only fertility doctor accused of using his own sperm during artificial insemination, Bavis and Harper report.  A number of new allegations of the practice have started coming to light as DNA-testing services have become more popular.

    According to Bob Colver, a fertility specialist, it's not uncommon for patients to ask about so-called fertility fraud. But he said it's not likely to happen. In the modern in-vitro fertilization (IVF) process, there are a lot more people involved, and the procedure occurs in a lab rather than an exam room.

    "Unless you're in a small clinic where there's absolutely no checks and balances, I can't even imagine that today," Colver said.

    Meanwhile, other concerns about the industry might be more acute, Bavis and Harper report.

    For example, sperm banks may not have accurate medical histories on their donors, which means donated sperm could pass down genetic diseases.

    In addition, patients often approach fertility treatment with unrealistic expectations about its success rates, Bavis and Harper report. Some clinics will advertise high fertilization rates, but those rates aren't synonymous with live birth rates. According to CDC, about 24% of IVF attempts result in a baby.

    The process can also be very expensive, sometimes unnecessarily, as many clinics will offer add-ons like endometrial scratching or assisted hatching that cost more, but do not have much scientific evidence behind them, Bavis and Harper report.

    Compounding the financial problem is the fact that insurers aren't required to cover fertility treatment in the majority of states, meaning one round of IVF treatment could cost upwards of $10,000 or $20,000 with little guarantee of success, Bavis and Harper report.

    For Woock, the process has been trying. Woock said she's tried four rounds of IVF without success, but she hasn't given up.

    "I realize that pregnancy is incredibly challenging on your body and your mental state," she said. "If I can make it through a year of IVF, I can make it through morning sickness" (Bavis/Harper, Side Effects Public Media/Kaiser Health News, 1/28).

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