The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has revoked the medical licence of an Ottawa fertility specialist who used his own sperm, without his patients’ knowledge, to impregnate them and gave incorrect sperm samples to dozens of others.
The college’s discipline committee also verbally reprimanded the former physician, Norman Barwin, on Tuesday for “reprehensible” behaviour and “irreparable damage that will span generations.”
Mr. Barwin will have to pay a fine of around $10,000 to cover the cost of the one-day hearing and is barred from practising medicine. He surrendered his medical licence in 2014, after revelations about his conduct began to emerge, but an official revocation is necessary to keep him from practising in another jurisdiction.
According to an agreed statement of facts, Mr. Barwin impregnated several of his patients using his own sperm via artificial insemination over the course of a few decades. The statement said Mr. Barwin also impregnated a number of patients with sperm samples from the wrong donors.
Mr. Barwin’s actions were uncovered with the help of online DNA testing. For instance, the daughter of one patient took an online DNA test to learn about her biological father, who was supposed to be an anonymous sperm donor. But the DNA results led her back to Mr. Barwin.
In other cases, women were impregnated with donor sperm instead of their partner’s sperm. Some women who requested a specific sperm donor were inseminated with a different sample.
Many parents have been unable to find genetic information on their children’s biological fathers, the hearing heard.
Mr. Barwin’s lawyer entered a plea of no contest, meaning the former doctor did not dispute the allegations. The 80-year-old, who still lives in the Ottawa area, did not attend the hearing.
Rebecca Dixon learned Mr. Barwin is her biological father three years ago, when she was 25.
“In that moment, my life changed forever,” Ms. Dixon told the hearing as part of a victim-impact statement. “It made me feel like I had something to be ashamed of.”
Ms. Dixon discovered the truth after her parents noticed a few troubling details. Ms. Dixon’s doctor believed she had celiac disease, which tends to run in families. But Ms. Dixon’s parents don’t have celiac disease. They also have blue eyes, but she has dark brown eyes. After approaching their family doctor, they confirmed Ms. Dixon and her father are not biologically related.
Outside of the hearing, Ms. Dixon said she hopes the case sends a message about the need for better oversight of fertility clinics. Fertility clinics in Canada are privately run, for the most part, and have limited regulatory oversight. She also hopes the public exposure will encourage others who may have been affected to come forward.
“It should make people ask more questions about how this industry is being regulated and managed and monitored in the province and across the country,” Ms. Dixon said.
Simon Phillips, a board member of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, said clinics have a number of measures in place, including double-witnessing of how lab samples are handled, to prevent specimen mix-ups. Labs also have to undergo an accreditation process. But stopping someone who is purposefully breaking the rules poses a bigger challenge, Dr. Phillips said.
“The intentional disregard for professional ethics is obviously more hard to control,” he said.
It’s unclear how many people may have been affected by Mr. Barwin’s actions. An expert report presented during the hearing said Mr. Barwin is the biological father to 11 children born to patients at his clinic, while an additional 40 people were impregnated using the wrong sperm sample.
But Ms. Dixon said she has used DNA testing to confirm she has at least 15 half-siblings. She says she believes there are others affected by Mr. Barwin’s actions who are reluctant to come forward.
Ms. Dixon and her parents have launched a class-action lawsuit against Mr. Barwin. Several other families have joined the suit.
Carolyn Silver, the college’s senior counsel who prosecuted the case, told the hearing Mr. Barwin’s actions are unprecedented.
“He took advantage of his patients and their spouses that turned to him for his medical expertise to help them start a family,” Ms. Silver said. “Dr. Barwin violated the trust of his patients and their families … in the most unspeakable manner.”