BBC's 'The Outlook' is a radio programme and podcast series of a collection of unusual first-person stories from around the world. The show is hosted by journalist Jo Fidgen. I am an avid podcast listener, so when I found an episode in this podcast series called 'The shocking truth about my three dads', I decided to listen in.
This episode was all about the life story of Eve Wiley from Texas. Wiley had lost her father when she was eight years old, due to a heart condition. When her younger sibling started having regular check-ups for this condition and she didn't, she decided to 'investigate' by going through her mother's emails to find out why. This investigation was the start of a very unusual story. Wiley found out that she was donor-conceived. She then decided to reach out to the donor and ended up developing a very close relationship with him and his family. An unexpected autoimmune condition that her son developed made her take a home DNA test, but the results were not as expected.
Unsurprisingly, she found out that she had several half-siblings, but they were unrelated to the man she thought was her sperm donor. Further investigations revealed that Wiley's actual biological father was her mother's fertility doctor, who had used his own sperm during insemination without her mother's awareness or consent.
I found Wiley's story both extraordinary and disturbing. The podcast attempted to navigate through various sensitive topics related to gamete donation, home DNA testing results, and their aftermath, and, as a whole, did so successfully. Fidgen asked all the right questions in a kind and caring manner and allowed Wiley to narrate her story in detail.
Wiley described feelings of joy and hope when she found out that she was donor-conceived. As she very rightfully stated, she was very lucky in that when she reached out to who she thought was her sperm donor, he was very receptive to establishing a relationship with her. His partner, however, was not as excited about Wiley's existence, to begin with.
What was surprising and disturbing for Wiley and, I would assume, the podcast listeners, including myself, was the later discovery that her actual biological father was really her mother's fertility doctor, Dr Kim McMorries.
Commercially available home DNA tests are increasingly being used to provide information both on health and ancestry. In Wiley's situation, the discovery that her mother's fertility doctor was her biological father was devastating and had implications for her, her mother, and the person who she thought was her donor. Wiley graphically described these implications via her answers to Fidgen's questions.
As it turned out from the DNA test findings, Dr McMorries had used his own sperm for the insemination of several patients, without them knowing or consenting. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated event. Such cases have been reported in Australia, USA, South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and elsewhere (see BioNews 1100, 996 and 1004). A documentary called 'Our Father' showing on Netflix now describes such a case too. Most of the fertility doctors implicated in these allegations are retired, and almost none of them has been prosecuted, for what could be considered a form of sexual assault – though notably it is not specifically criminalised in many jurisdictions.
Fertility and associated treatments are a somewhat controversial part of medicine. For many patients having their own biological children is critical. Such patients are willing to spend large amounts of money to create a family. In my career to date, I had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with several fertility doctors. My experience of these doctors and their teams is that they are dedicated to their patients and their wish to have a family. The dedication and excellent practice of IVF clinics and their doctors was something that I found lacking in the podcast. It is important for couples considering fertility treatment to be aware that horror stories such as the one covered in this podcast are exceptions to the rule, and that IVF clinicians are caring and have impeccable ethics.
I found 'The Outlook' podcast's episode riveting. It very clearly showed that there are gaps in several aspects associated with gamete donation, the use of home DNA tests, and ethical boundaries related to fertility treatment. As more couples are considering fertility treatments with or without gamete donation, it is imperative that strict regulations are put forward in the UK, but also abroad, to avoid hearing stories in the future, such as the one narrated by Wiley.