COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Carrie Lauterbach’s parents arrived at a Cincinnati fertility clinic more than 40 years ago.
The couple, who struggled to conceive, were told to select with pen and paper an anonymous sperm donor who would eventually help them become parents to Lauterbach and her older sister. The clinic assured them that the donor, a medical student at a nearby university, resembled Lauterbach’s father.
It wasn’t until November 2020, with the help of an at-home DNA test, that Lauterbach discovered a life-altering realization: the obstetrician presiding over her mother’s care, Dr. Stephen Hornstein, used his own sample to artificially inseminate her mother.
“I know how much I trusted my fertility doctor; I hung onto everything he said and just trusted him fully,” Lauterbach said. “To think that a doctor would take advantage of my mother, you know, 40-plus years ago in the same situation, is absolutely shocking to me.”
Fertility fraud is legal under Ohio law
Lauterbach, of Oakwood near Dayton, said the direct-to-consumer DNA test from Ancestry.com revealed she had six half siblings – all of whom were related to Hornstein, a prominent Cincinnati-area doctor until his death in 2008, according to his obituary.
A similar fate held true for Michelle Smith, whose DNA results surprised her with a 51% Jewish ethnicity, despite zero Jewish heritage in her family, she told lawmakers. Further digging brought her to the same conclusion as Lauterbach: Hornstein used his own sample to impregnate her mother.
“My mother felt violated and a victim of rape; her mental health has not been the same since learning of this news,” Smith told lawmakers. “This has altered our trust in ethical physician practices in every way possible. Why did he do this? We will never know. How could this be ethical? How could this be legal?”
Smith said her story is not a rarity. Between 20 and 30 open cases of fertility fraud exist against American physicians, and a dozen civil lawsuits have been filed since 2000, according to Dr. Jody Madeira, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law who specializes in bioethics.
Madeira said the vast majority of patients she has interviewed feel as though they were raped or sexually assaulted during each insemination, and donor-conceived children often feel they were born out of criminal activity.
“These harms profoundly affect every aspect of victims’ lives, from personal identity to relational dynamics. The physician also literally inserts his genetic material into his patients’ family trees,” Madeira said.
Yet unbeknownst to Lauterbach and Smith at the time of their DNA tests, Ohio law is silent on the practice of fertility fraud.
“I’m not sure which is more shocking: the fact that doctors would take advantage of patients in this way or the fact that it isn’t illegal to do so,” Lauterbach told lawmakers.
Bill would penalize ‘daddy doctors,’ allow victims to sue
In 2021, Rep. Jena Powell (R-Arcanum) introduced House Bill 64 to define fertility fraud as its own offense in Ohio’s criminal code. Later tucked inside Senate Bill 288, an omnibus criminal justice bill, Powell’s legislation would prohibit a health care professional from using reproductive material to inseminate a patient without their consent.
Those who do so – or mislead a patient about the sperm donor’s profile or fail to abide by laws pertaining to non-spousal artificial insemination – could be slapped with a second- or third-degree felony, depending on the circumstances.
Families affected by fertility fraud can, if SB 288 passes, file a civil suit against the doctor for up to $10,000, so long as the claim is filed within 10 years of discovering the offense.
“We are striving to create a culture of life here in Ohio,” Powell said in a statement. “That includes ensuring that every husband and wife growing their family with ART (assisted reproductive technologies) has peace of mind and confidence to know that their fertility doctor will not knowingly impregnate the woman with his own or incorrect sperm.”
The Senate passed SB 288 in a 29-2 vote on Nov. 30. If the House follows suit – which it was poised to do late Wednesday – the prohibition on fertility fraud would make its way to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk for consideration.
Ohio would become one of seven states with laws pertaining to fertility fraud, according to Madeira.
“Hopefully some people will have justice. That’s what we’re looking for,” Lauterbach said. “And just knowing that there’s a law that prohibits that, it would be a big relief for many people.”