When the Doctor Is In Your DNA



morgan hellquist and her mother, jo ann levey

Morgan Hellquist and her mother, Jo Ann Levey.

Stephanie Mei-Ling

Ten years ago, when Morgan Hellquist, a married art teacher with two kids, was having some issues with her period and needed a new gynecologist, Morris Wortman, MD, seemed like the obvious choice. Wortman ran a Rochester, New York, clinic treating menstrual disorders, and posted YouTube videos in which he would opine on treating endometrial ablation failures while dressed in royal-blue scrubs, his bald head reflecting the overhead lighting.

As now outlined in a civil lawsuit, Wortman wasn’t just admired in the broader community; he was also worshiped in Hellquist’s home. Since she was eight years old, Hellquist’s parents had told her about the “miracle worker” doctor who helped them overcome her father’s paralysis so they could have a baby using anonymous donor sperm. “He was very much part of our story,” says Hellquist, 36. The first time Hellquist met Wortman in his office, she says she was “a little fangirl-y.” She reminded him that her mother had been his patient, that he was responsible for her conception. While she was initially impressed by Wortman’s intelligence and diligence, over her nine years as his patient, Hellquist became increasingly uncomfortable. “Sometimes, he would be very professional and empathetic,” she says. “And sometimes, he was super inappropriate.”

Curious about her biological origins, Hellquist connected with some half siblings online, who she presumed were fathered by the same donor. And, to her surprise, a genetic test indicated she was 50 percent Ashkenazi Jewish, even though her parents had requested that the donor not be from any one specific ethnic heritage so the child could match their own mixed backgrounds. As these new discoveries emerged, she shared them with Wortman. According to the complaint, Wortman, himself Jewish, told her that her challenging PMS was all in her head, the result of being a “Jewish American Princess.”

When Hellquist tried to schedule an appointment with another practitioner at Wortman’s clinic, Wortman changed her appointment to be with him and asked that she book with him moving forward. The whole thing struck Hellquist as “skeevy,” but she convinced herself she was overreacting. “I was like, ‘He sees a thousand women’s vaginas a day. This has nothing to do with you.’ ” Still, she describes the odd sensation of watching someone revered slip off a pedestal. “Until, all of a sudden, it was like a tsunami took out the pedestal in one swipe.”

“In what world do you look your daughter in the face and then give her a breast exam?”

On April 12, 2021, Hellquist had an appointment with Wortman. In his office, at the height of COVID-19, he asked her to take her mask off. “He told me I look better without a mask,” she says. At one point, Wortman’s wife and employee, Rebecca, stepped into the room, and Hellquist felt like she was examining her face, as if searching for a resemblance. Wortman started asking Hellquist a barrage of personal questions: What does her husband do? What was his name again? What about her children’s names? He mentioned a relative of Hellquist’s who worked for an auction house, and then got up to rummage through a pile of things, returning with a vintage “massage” gun. He asked her if she could guess what he thought women used it for, according to court filings.

It was bizarre and awkward. In his office following the exam, Wortman again made things personal, telling her his parents were Holocaust survivors and about his medical training. “I was like, this is so much information,” Hellquist says. Then he started chuckling to himself, calling her “such a good kid.” Suddenly, Hellquist was struck by the resemblance—Wortman looked exactly like one of the half brothers she had connected with online. “My throat dropped into my stomach,” she says. “Something in my head said, ‘This is bad. You’ve got to go.’ ” In May 2021, according to the complaint, Hellquist and one of her half brothers contacted Wortman’s daughter from a previous marriage, who agreed to submit to a genetic test. The test revealed that Hellquist, her half brother, and the doctor’s daughter were all siblings. Wortman was Hellquist’s biological father.

Over the next month, Hellquist says she lost 10 pounds. “I could hardly keep food down,” she says. “I was physically sick every single day.” She struggled to make sense of what had transpired. “I can’t imagine what was going through his head when he was treating me,” she says. “In what world do you look your daughter in the face and then give her a breast exam?” When her mother found out, she told Hellquist that she felt like she had been violated. (Hellquist’s dad passed away in 2015.) Unsure what to do but determined to force accountability, Hellquist called a lawyer friend, who gave her some shocking news: There are no fertility fraud laws in New York State. What Wortman allegedly did—swapping in his sperm instead of using the promised anonymous donor—wasn’t a crime.

These allegations now form the basis of the civil suit filed by Hellquist. In an amended complaint filed in February 2022, Hellquist and her legal team outline an alleged timeline: Between 1983 and 1985, while Hellquist’s mother was undergoing fertility treatments, Wortman told Hellquist’s parents that he had the perfect donor—a medical student who checked all their boxes, including screening for genetic issues. They agreed to pay the donor $50 for each live donation. According to her complaint, Hellquist now believes that not only was the donor not real, but Wortman pocketed the $50 and, Hellquist alleges, used his own semen sample to inseminate Hellquist’s mother, who became pregnant and gave birth to Hellquist. She also alleges that her mother never consented to Wortman using his own sperm. Wortman did not reply to a request for comment for this article, and as of May 2022, had not yet responded to the amended complaint that alleges medical malpractice, fraud, and battery. In his response to the original complaint, he acknowledged that he treated Hellquist on a “very limited and infrequent basis,” but denied her allegations that he had engaged in any wrongdoing.

Hellquist is one of several women fighting a similar legal battle across the country, which is overwhelmingly being led not by the mothers who were betrayed by their doctors, but by their adult daughters. Over the last decade, dozens of people have alleged a very particular form of medical malpractice and personal betrayal: a fertility doctor who used his own sperm to impregnate a patient without her permission and is, in fact, her child’s biological father. Some of these doctors are alleged to have taken advantage of the new technologies and lax restrictions of the 1970s and ’80s, and are believed to have deceptively fathered dozens of children. Among the accused is Las Vegas obstetrician Quincy Fortier, MD, who is believed to have used his sperm to father at least 26 children. And Donald Cline, MD, a fertility doctor in Indianapolis, who allegedly told at least 50 patients that he was using fresh sperm from a medical student before using his own sample instead. Fortier, who died in 2006, never lost his license, nor was he charged with any crime. Cline eventually surrendered his medical license and pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for lying to Indiana investigators; to date, he has never been criminally charged or found liable in any court for allegedly using his own sperm to inseminate women without their consent.

“The fact that it’s not already specific grounds for losing your [medical] license is bonkers.”

In the absence of criminal recourse—and with many of these physicians continuing to practice medicine—civil suits like Hellquist’s are sometimes the only option. But flabbergasted women are also now pushing for legislative change. Across the country, state fertility fraud bills are being introduced, and nine have been enacted so far—in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Texas, and Utah. At press time, Iowa’s legislature had passed a bill that was awaiting Governor Kim Reynolds’s signature. And in New York, Hellquist has joined nine lawmakers to lobby for fertility fraud bills that will clear the way for civil suits; classify the practice of using human reproductive material without explicit consent as aggravated sexual abuse; and include fertility fraud in the definition of misconduct for physicians, thus making it illegal for a doctor to use his own sperm. She’s hoping it will pass by summer 2022. “The fact that it’s not already specific grounds for losing your [medical] license is bonkers,” Hellquist says.

Much of the new legislation creates a pathway to criminal charges, likening fertility fraud to sexual abuse. New York state senator Samra Brouk, one of the cosponsors of the state’s proposed senate fertility fraud bill, wants to see such acts classified as aggravated sexual abuse. “It is shameful to prey on those struggling with their fertility, and the insertion of reproductive material without consent of the receiving party must be penalized,” Brouk says. Shifting ideas about consent underpin this movement. Hellquist and other advocates note that the reaction of many of their mothers—some of whom may have faced considerable stigma when accessing this care decades ago—tends to be some combination of shame and the desire to sweep things under the rug. But their daughters want to draw a hard line in the sand. “There are a ton of women now saying, ‘Actually, Mom, this is a problem,’ ” Hellquist says.

There is a generational divide surrounding advocacy, says Jody Madeira, PhD, codirector of the Center for Law, Society & Culture at Indiana University Bloomington. For older women, who underwent fertility treatments when the science was much newer, every birth truly seemed like a miracle—even if it was best not to talk about the details. Their daughters, who are now accustomed to these medical interventions as relatively common, and who were reared during increasingly open conversations about consent and bodily autonomy, are inclined to see sperm-swapping by doctors for the violation it is.

Eve Wiley, whose biological father is her mother’s former fertility doctor, found out that she was donor-conceived at 16, according to both live and written testimony she’s given in support of fertility fraud legislation in several states. Living in small-town Texas, her mother had selected a donor in California because “she didn’t want to be in the grocery store, wondering if someone was her child’s biological father.” But after the premature death of Wiley’s father from a heart condition, her mother became concerned about the medical history of her donor.

eve wiley and her mother, margo williams

Eve Wiley and her mother, Margo Williams.

Stephanie Mei-Ling

When Wiley turned 18, she petitioned for information, and a California sperm bank connected her with a man named Steve, according to her testimony. Their records indicated he had supplied the donation purchased by the fertility clinic of Kim McMorries, MD, in Nacogdoches, Texas. “We started this beautiful father-daughter relationship,” says Wiley, 35. “He’s the most gentle, amazingly kind person in the world.” Soon Steve was joining her family for holidays; she began calling him “Dad,” and he officiated at her wedding in 2013.

Several years ago, Wiley’s young son started to develop troubling health problems; he struggled to keep food down and had repeated severe allergic reactions. He had 12 surgeries before his fourth birthday. In the face of a medical mystery, doctors suggested that Wiley, her husband, and son try DNA testing kits. The results indicated that Wiley’s son had celiac disease, a hereditary autoimmune condition. But neither Wiley, her husband, or Steve had celiac in their families. Wiley also kept getting alerts about potential first cousins, and she decided to reach out to one. He told her that McMorries was their biological father. “I was like, ‘No, you’re confused,’ ” she says. “ ‘He’s our moms’ doctor. You see that difference?’ And I was explaining to him about the sperm donor like he didn’t understand.” She reached out to another DNA match, who she thought might be a half brother, but the genetic connection was unclear. They got talking, and he mentioned that he had an uncle who lived near Wiley. His name was Kim McMorries. “My world just stopped,” Wiley says. “It was like I finally swapped in the correct lens and the picture became clear. Something was really wrong here.”

Wiley’s discovery threatened to upend her entire life. She would have to tell Steve, the man who had come into her life and wrapped her in a warm duvet of paternal love, that he wasn’t her father. Even worse, she would have to tell her mother. It was tempting to just pretend all of it had never happened. At first, Wiley stalled on telling Steve, but when she did call to break the news, he started sobbing. “I started crying and kept saying, ‘I’m still here,’ ” Wiley says. At the end of the conversation, Steve told her that she was still his daughter. “I was devastated to have to be the one to deliver that news and was worried about how it would affect our relationship, but we banded together over the injustice of it all,” she says. When Wiley worked up the courage to tell her mother, her mother went into shock. “She was shaking to the point where my husband thought we needed to call an ambulance. For her and a lot of our moms, it’s really hard to process the trauma of it,” Wiley says. “But also, they love us. They would not change us for anything. And it’s really hard for them to tease apart those two things.”

“Our moms love us. They would not change us for anything. And it’s really hard for them to tease apart those two things.”

Many cases of doctor-father deception have been uncovered through the popularity of take-home genetic testing kits. “There’s a culture of genetic testing in the U.S. that’s quite different from that of other countries,” Madeira says. “We treat it like a party game.” But that game can have very unexpected results. Kara Rubinstein Deyerin, cofounder and CEO of Right to Know, an advocacy, mental health support, and education organization in Maple Valley, Washington, that promotes transparency regarding genetic information, says that two common forms of deception involve donors providing untruthful information and clinics mishandling genetic material. “A heterosexual couple goes in because they’re having fertility issues, and they take the husband’s sample and the wife gets pregnant,” she says. Years later, someone gives them a DNA kit for Christmas, and the results show that the father has other children out there. “They find out that the clinic used the husband’s [leftover] sperm as an anonymous donor without his permission.”

In addition to the sudden challenges to identity that arise, surprise home DNA test results can turn the notion of violation on its head. “Normally, if you’re wronged—if you’re in a car accident or robbed or raped—you feel it directly,” Madeira says. But in cases of fertility fraud, there’s often no awareness of a violation until a test comes back. And in these cases, the person who underwent the fraudulent insemination—the mother who was lied to—is typically not the person who discovers it. Madeira says the closest analogy is when someone is raped while unconscious, and then told about it later.

Wiley reached out to McMorries for an explanation, and the two exchanged multiple letters and emails before the doctor confirmed that he was, in fact, her biological father. He said he told Wiley’s parents that since the donor sperm was not working, he would augment it with another anonymous sample in order to increase the likelihood of conception, and that the couple consented to that approach. He never suggests, however, that he informed them that those anonymous samples might be his own, rather that he was only trying to help the couple conceive. McMorries has said because he had consent to use an anonymous donor, he had no obligation to inform Wiley’s parents that he would be a donor. His tone breezy, he invited Wiley and her mother to visit him and his son, now in practice with him. But Wiley pressed him. “I want to believe you, and I want to believe this came from an altruistic place in helping a couple conceive,” she wrote. “You must know how this looks given everything I was provided with. However, I can’t imagine my parents agreeing to their fertility doctor fathering their child.” (McMorries declined to comment for this article.)

“There’s a culture of genetic testing in the U.S. that’s quite different from that of other countries. We treat it like a party game.”

Disgusted and distraught, Wiley reached out to attorneys—only to be advised that McMorries did not violate Texas law and that a civil action was unlikely to be successful. And so Wiley filed a medical board complaint against McMorries in 2019. The medical board filed a formal complaint against McMorries with the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings, but he challenged that complaint by claiming it was outside a seven-year statute of limitations. McMorries maintained his license and continued to practice until his retirement in 2021. He has never admitted to any wrongdoing, or been found to have violated any law or ethical rule.

The stunning lack of recourse turned Wiley into an activist. Her Instagram account, once full of images of herself with a perfect blowout, smiling with an arm around her husband, or beaming at her joyful children in matching pastel outfits, has gradually given way to all-text posts that indicate her laser focus on criminalizing fertility fraud. She’s working her way across the country, partnering with victims and lawmakers on bills state by state. Wiley started with Texas, which became the first state to classify fertility fraud as sexual assault in 2019. “It’s important that these initiatives are victim-led,” Wiley says. “It has been so central to my healing.” She’s also lobbying Texas for an exemption to the prevailing seven-year statute of limitations—ensuring that women have an option for accountability when surprise DNA test results surface, often decades later. Some accused doctors have insisted they were simply trying to fulfill their patients’ desire to have a baby at a time when sperm samples were harder to come by. “[McMorries’s] attorney ended up quoting my mother saying that she desperately wanted to conceive and would have tried anything,” Wiley says. But she finds that explanation disingenuous. “It’s the same strategy that abusers use in sexual harassment cases—blame victims and present themselves as the injured party.”

The cold, detached, and sometimes flippant attitude exhibited by some of the accused doctors can also complicate efforts to pursue personal connection. When Traci Portugal got the shocking results of a home DNA test in 2019, according to testimony she gave in support of fertility fraud legislation being considered in Washington State, she decided to reach out to the fertility doctor she identified as her father. “Despite an initial discussion with the doctor about my findings, he has continued to ignore all further requests to provide answers of what happened or to provide important medical history for me and my children,” Portugal said in her testimony. “As such I continue to feel physically violated by those we should have been able to trust.” For her, reckoning with the fact that her doctor father simply doesn’t care has been the hardest part. “After that, I went to a pretty dark place,” Portugal says. “My husband had to work from home to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid.”

Portugal’s efforts to heal have been multipronged. In addition to supporting fertility fraud legislation in Washington State, presently being considered by house and state senate sponsors, she found comfort in Facebook support groups. “It’s so helpful to know you’re not alone,” she says. The sense of community—she refers to the other members as her “siblings”—spurred her to create her own website, Donor Deceived, in which she offers resources and maps dozens of donor fraud cases around the world. She also collects testimonials from stunned individuals struggling with their sudden new identities, strained family relationships, and dozens of potential half siblings. “I was uneasy with the circumstances through which I came into the world,” writes one anonymous woman. “Knowing who my biological father was became a burdensome gift.”

Some women have had better luck forging ties with their newfound siblings. In 2016, Rebecca Dixon’s parents began to doubt her father’s paternity after her mother saw a random post on Facebook that stated two blue-eyed parents can’t have a brown-eyed child. “And I have very dark eyes,” says Dixon, 32, who lives in Ottawa. A paternity test confirmed that Dixon’s dad was not her biological father; it was their fertility specialist in Ottawa, Norman Barwin, MD. That same year, Dixon sued Barwin, alleging he used his own sperm or the wrong sperm, according to her lawsuit. Dixon, an only child, remembers the emotional experience of getting a phone call indicating that one of her half sisters wanted to meet. “There were tears streaming down my face,” she says. “The idea of having a sister was something I had never been able to imagine before.”

During the pandemic, the half siblings had a regular Zoom call. And many of her half siblings joined Dixon’s lawsuit to make it a class action, which was settled in 2021 for over $13.3 million (Canadian). According to a CBC report, Barwin denied all legal claims throughout the lawsuit, and maintains that the negotiated settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing. In 2019, the Discipline Committee of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario revoked Barwin’s medical license and ordered him to pay a fine after determining that he had engaged in professional misconduct by using his own sperm or the wrong sperm with women seeking insemination treatments.

While no one is obligated to turn their pain into purpose, many of the women involved in this advocacy movement have found refuge in the pursuit of systemic change—though it comes at a price. “My current label of ‘the girl whose gynecologist was her father’ is not a thrilling position to be in,” Hellquist says. “But this was the only option I saw as a way to hold him accountable. I don’t want any other woman to pick up the phone and have someone tell her, ‘There’s nothing you can do.’ ” Still, it can be hard to get up every day and hold your hand over the flame. Hellquist’s initial reaction to her paternity shock was a mix of revulsion and shame. She blamed herself for not severing the relationship sooner. “My gut was trying to tell me he’s not a good dude,” she says. “And I kept wanting to believe my mom’s miracle story.”

But the thing that now spurs Hellquist on is her 13-year-old daughter, who she hopes will benefit from evolving conversations about consent, bodily autonomy, and the right to walk out on any “skeevy” situation without internalizing self-doubt. “I could not look her in the face one day and tell her that I did not use my voice,” Hellquist says. “That I did nothing about it.”

This article appears in the August 2022 issue of ELLE.

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