A former Ottawa fertility doctor is facing accusations that he used his own sperm to impregnate two of his patients, both of whom had daughters who are now in their mid-twenties.
A statement of claim for a potential class-action lawsuit was filed Tuesday against Dr. Norman Barwin, who worked out of Ottawa’s Broadview Fertility Clinic.
The claim alleges that Barwin used his own sperm rather than the sperm his patients requested in at least two fertility cases, but the claimants suggest there could be more pregnancies affected.
Rebecca Dixon, 26, first suspected that her parents’ former fertility doctor could be her father earlier this year after she found out she had Celiac disease, a hereditary condition that neither of her parents had. Around the same time, Dixon’s mother read an article that suggested it was unusual for a child with brown eyes to be born to parents with blue eyes.
When she followed up with her family doctor, a blood test and DNA test were administered. Both results confirmed what she’d feared: her father wasn’t related to her.
“Certainly it was a complete shock when they first told me, and there have been further shocks along the way,” Dixon told CTV News.
After receiving the alarming news, the family began to research a series of cases against Barwin’s practice. In 2013, he was suspended from the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons after he admitted to inseminating four patients with the wrong sperm.
In one of the cases, a woman visited Barwin in the mid-1980s with frozen sperm from her husband, who was being treated for cancer. The woman became pregnant but, in 2011, found out through DNA testing that her son was not related to her husband.
During their research, the Dixon family noticed an “uncanny resemblance” between Dixon and the doctor, according to the statement of claim. Unlike her parents, Rebecca has dark hair and olive skin.
In September, Dixon reached out to Kathryn Palmer, a 25-year-old Vancouver woman who was also conceived at Barwin’s clinic. Palmer’s parents requested an anonymous sperm donor for their child.
Dr. Norman Barwin
In 2015, Palmer submitted a sample of her DNA to the website Family Tree DNA in hopes of learning more about her parents’ sperm donor. The results linked her to a second cousin in New York City who, according to the statement of claim, was related to Barwin.
The claim states that Palmer then reached out to Barwin in August, and he agreed to undergo a DNA test. According to the claim, Palmer received an email from Barwin last Thursday in which he confirms that he is her biological father.
“He told me initially that he had no idea how it had happened. And then later he told me that he had been testing a sperm counter and this must’ve been some contamination,” Palmer said.
DNA tests have also revealed that Palmer and Dixon are half-sisters who share the same biological father, the claim states.
The potential class-action lawsuit was filed by Rebecca Dixon and her parents, Davina and Daniel Dixon. The claim includes damages for pain and suffering, past and future care costs, and punitive damages. No dollar amount has been named in the claim.
Palmer has not joined the class-action lawsuit but said she intends to.
“I think it’s important for this story to be known,” she said. “I feel like there are other people in our situation, and I think it’s important for people who may be curious and may be suspicious about it to look into it further.”
Barwin has not responded to any of the allegations in the 18-page legal filing. His lawyer, Karen Hamway, told CTV News that she and her client “have no comments” to make “in this confidential matter.”
“A statement of defence on behalf of Dr. Barwin will be filed with the court in due course,” Hamway wrote in an emailed statement.
None of the allegations against Barwin have been tested in court.
In a strange twist, Dixon and Palmer went to the very same Ottawa high school but never met because they were a grade apart. Palmer later moved to Vancouver.
“We had a lot of mutual friends, we were both in the music program there, but never crossed paths, surprisingly,” Palmer said. “Although even if we had met then, who’s to say we would’ve figured it out.”
‘A really difficult year’
Rebecca Dixon says she’s facing some major questions about the case.
“I think we would all like to know what happened and why,” she said. “And how he could have done this and ended up in this situation and not told anyone…and I’m not sure that this process will give us those answers.”
She says the DNA results caused her to “ask a lot of interesting questions about how much biology matters” in terms of the relationship between her and her non-biological father.
“Certainly for me, although it’s been a process of having to ask questions about our family that we should never have to ask, it’s reaffirmed that it’s the relationships that we have that matter.”
She said that going public with the news has been a relief, in a sense.
“To me, keeping it a secret made it feel very shameful,” she said. “And I am overjoyed by the fact that I have a sibling and possibly more siblings out there.”
Dixon said she’s unsure what sort of relationship she would want with Barwin.
“I don’t know what I would say to him. I’m not sure I want to meet him,” she said. “Like I said, we would like to know why. I’m not convinced we would get a straight answer.”
‘Monumental’ breach of trust
Dixon’s lawyer, Peter Cronyn, says Barwin’s alleged actions were a “monumental” breach of trust.
“They entrusted into his hands probably the most valuable thing that any of us could put into someone else’s hands, which is the ability to create life and a family,” he said. “There are many, many layers — emotional and psychological layers — to the implications of what has occurred.”
Sara Cohen, a fertility lawyer, said the allegations against Barwin are “incredibly sad and upsetting” and that, if proven to be true, she “can’t really imagine a worse breach of a doctors fiduciary duty to his patients.”
She said the potential implications of the lawsuit are large, including questions of whether Barwin will owe child support.
However, she cautioned against widespread skepticism of fertility doctors and said the case doesn’t reflect “typical behavior” of Canadian doctors.
“But I can understand why people now would be very worried about that, because patients place a lot of trust in their doctors. And this is the kind of thing that is forever. Genetics are forever.”
With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip