Ottawa

Lead plaintiff in disgraced fertility doctor lawsuit hopes settlement is a step forward

The woman who launched a class-action lawsuit against disgraced Ottawa fertility doctor Norman Barwin says a proposed settlement will help her move on from the pain caused when her family learned that he — not the man who raised her — is her biological father.

Rebecca Dixon is one of 17 children Norman Barwin conceived using his own sperm

Rebecca Dixon and her parents launched a class-action lawsuit against former Ottawa fertility doctor Norman Barwin in 2016. The Ontario Superior Court certified the suit Wednesday, which includes a proposed settlement worth $13.3 million. The settlement still has to be approved by the court. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

The woman who launched a class-action lawsuit against disgraced Ottawa fertility doctor Norman Barwin says a proposed settlement will help her move on from the pain caused when her family learned that he — not the man who raised her — is her biological father.

Rebecca Dixon, along with her parents Dan and Davina, are the lead plaintiffs in a court action claiming Barwin either used the wrong sperm or his own to conceive at least 100 children without the knowledge or consent of the patients.

The Ontario Superior Court certified the suit Wednesday, which includes a proposed settlement worth $13.3 million. The settlement still has to be approved by the court.

"For me, it marks a clear sort of inflection point where there's 'before this all happened' and then now I'm in the 'after period' and that after period will be the rest of my life," said Dixon.

While she is disappointed the settlement doesn't include a clear admission of responsibility from Barwin, Dixon said it substantiates the harm she and others experienced.

"I don't think there will ever really be closure for all of us," she said. 

DNA confirms 

Dixon was 25 years old when, in 2016, her parents informed her they suspected Dan wasn't her biological father. She had been conceived with the help of Barwin, who owned Broadview Fertility Clinic and before that worked at Ottawa Hospital's General campus.

A blood test that year confirmed she couldn't be Dan Dixon's biological child and a subsequent online DNA test showed her bloodline was almost 60 per cent of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Neither Dan nor Davina are Jewish.

Barwin was a well-known member of Ottawa's Jewish community.

Former Ottawa fertility doctor Norman Barwin, seen here in 2013, has agreed in court to a multi-million-dollar proposed settlement. Barwin and his lawyer refused to comment on the settlement. (CBC)

Dixon's DNA was then compared to that of another woman, 25-year-old Kat Palmer, who had also been conceived at the same clinic. Tests concluded the women were half-sisters by way of the same biological father.

Palmer had been told by Barwin in an October 2015 email that he took a paternity test that showed he was her biological father, according to the original statement of claim.

"The loss of that biological connection [to my father], although it doesn't impact the the love that we have, is certainly significant," Dixon said.

Stronger oversight 

The class action has since grown to 226 members, including former patients and children — 17 of whom have discovered Barwin is their biological father through DNA. Other patients claim Barwin inseminated them with sperm from men who were not the chosen donors.

Members of the class action will be able to apply for compensation of up $50,000, depending on the circumstances. 

But Dixon said no amount of money will compensate families for what they've been through.

"People made certain choices about the families they were trying to create," said Dixon. "Then something happened that was not all according to their wishes."

Dixon said she hopes the settlement leads to stronger oversight of the fertility industry, so that families are better protected in the future. 

The federal government brought in new rules governing "assisted human reproduction" in 2020. But the lawyer representing families in the class action, Peter Cronyn, says loopholes remain.

Health Canada is responsible for inspecting the safety of donor eggs and sperm. A separate independent regulatory body, the College of Physicians and Surgeons, is responsible for overseeing doctors' conduct.

The College revoked Barwin's medical license in June 2019, six years after he was first disciplined for failing to use the correct sperm in insemination cases.

"I'm hoping that this case ... will elevate the public's attention and the politicians' attention to the problems that can occur when regulatory bodies don't step in and oversee," said Peter Cronyn of Nelligan Law, the lawyer representing the families.

With files from Amanda Pfeffer

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