A controversial genetic study published in 2003 suggested that one in every 200 men alive today is a descendant of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan. In central Asia, this figure rises to one in 12 — or about 16 million men.
Impossible today? Not so fast. There were 20th century superspreaders, to borrow from the jargon of Covid-19 news, who spread their genes far and wide in the 1960s, 70s and 80s – but they were doctors, not warlords.
Research is urgently needed into the extent of this phenomenon and its consequences.
Two recent cases which came to the attention of MercatorNet happened in South Africa and the United States.
Fiona Darroch writes in The Guardian about her discovery at the age of 52 that her biological father was really a South African fertility doctor named Tony Walker. It appears that “he had assisted more than 100 families in this way, many with multiple children”.
“We believe, based on what we could find out from the clinic staff, that he used his own sperm for at least 100 families, some with multiple, so we’ve probably got between 200 to 300 siblings from what we can calculate,” Ms Darroch told SBS. Her siblings are scattered across the globe, in the United States, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the UK.
Dr Walker committed suicide in 1977 at the age of 62, so he cannot offer shed more light on this issue.
And in small city in central western Oregon, another doctor has discovered that he is father to at least 19 children, according to a report in the Washington Post earlier this month. When Dr Bryce Cleary opened an account with Ancestry.com, he learned that a number of people had identified him as their biological father. He had donated sperm when he was a medical student in the 1980s. According to the Post, many of his children “lived within two hours of his home, and that he may never really know how many donor children exist”.
These are not isolated cases.
Last year Dr Norman Barwin was formally deregistered in Canada for inseminating his patients with his own sperm or the sperm of unknown men. He was a recipient of the Order of Canada and several honorary doctorates, and had been president of Canadians for Choice, the Canadian Fertility Society, Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada and Planned Parenthood Ottawa. It appears that between 50 and 100 children were conceived at his clinic after their mothers received the wrong semen. Of these 11 have been genetically matched to Barwin through DNA testing.
Dr Donald Cline, of Indianapolis, impregnated at least three dozen women in the 1970s and 80s. More than 60 people now believe that he is their biological father. He told his patients the sperm came from medical or dental residents or medical students and that no single donor’s sperm had been used more than three times.
A Dutch doctor, Dr Jan Karbaat, is believed to have fathered about 60 children for women who visited his clinic in Rotterdam between 1980 and 2009.
Then there was Dr Bertold Wiesner, who operated on a scale to rival Genghis Khan. It is believed that he sired 600 – and possibly as many as 1,000 — children for women who visited his London clinic in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He and his wife, Mary Barton, promised their patients that donors came only from “intelligent stock”. The clinic’s medical records were destroyed by Dr Barton, leaving the children conceived there in the dark about their ancestry.
Dov Fox, a bioethicist at the University of San Diego and the author of Birth Rights and Wrongs, summed up the bizarre trend in a single word: “gross”. “In a couple more: shocking, shameful. The number of doctors sounds less like a few bad apples and more like a generalized practice of deception, largely hidden until recently by a mix of low-tech and high stigma.”
Some of these men were undoubtedly psychologically warped. Their interest in siring children may have been a manifestation of a weird sexual power fetish.
More significant, however, is that the law and the medical profession still condone sperm donation. It may be regulated a bit more tightly, but it still exists. Fertility clinics cannot survive without it.
But every child deserves to know his or her father and mother. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child guarantees them “the right to know and be cared for by his or her parents” – if an international agreement is needed to confirm the judgement of common sense and common decency.
Growing up without knowing one’s true parentage is potentially psychologically damaging. Discovering as adult that one’s true parent was a feckless anonymous medical student is devastating. But such are the inevitable consequences of separating sex from love and procreation from reproduction.