Ottawa

Class-action lawsuit against disgraced fertility doctor grows

Marie-Pier never looked much like her father or older sisters, but never gave it much thought. Earlier this year, she learned she's really the biological child of Dr. Norman Barwin. Now she's suing him, along with 15 other half-siblings she never knew she had.

16 biological children of Norman Barwin have now come forward

Marie-Pier, left, pictured speaking with her mother Louise, only discovered this year that she's the biological child of disgraced fertility doctor Norman Barwin. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Growing up, Marie-Pier never really dwelled on her identity. 

The youngest of three girls never looked much like her father or two sisters, but the difference wasn't so great that the Gatineau, Que., native ever thought to question where she'd come from, or how she'd been conceived.

That all changed last fall when Marie-Pier's mother Louise saw a news report that stunned her. In it, a young woman whose identity was concealed except for her dark hair said she was fertility doctor Norman Barwin's biological daughter. 

"It got me thinking," Louise said in a French-language interview with Radio-Canada. CBC has agreed not to use the family's surname to protect their privacy.

Louise and her husband, who had had a vasectomy, longed for a third child. Fearing their youngest would be perceived as different from their other two children, they told no one when they decided to turn to a sperm bank, with help from Barwin.

It was a secret Louise kept until January, when she finally decided to tell Marie-Pier she had been conceived through artificial insemination.

"At the time, I said it didn't change anything," Marie-Pier told Radio-Canada. "Then it sunk in that my father is not my biological father, and it was a shock to learn that."

Louise grew convinced that Barwin was Marie-Pier's biological father. 

"It was something I felt. You can't explain it," she said.

A few weeks later, they got confirmation of Marie-Pier's paternity through a test organized by the law firm heading up the class-action lawsuit. Marie-Pier is now Barwin's 16th biological child to join the class action against the man who's become known as the "Baby God" of artificial insemination. 

(CBC)

Last year, Barwin was found to have committed professional misconduct by using his own sperm to inseminate several patients, and using the wrong sperm with many others. Barwin pleaded no contest to the allegations through his lawyer. His medical licence was revoked and he was ordered to pay a fine. 

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the class action say there are now 91 children who were conceived using the wrong sperm, including Barwin's. Some of those newly discovered "Barwin babies" are from the Gatineau area.

'There's got to be others'

The woman Louise had seen being interviewed on television is Tracy-Lee Prescott, who has now agreed to reveal her identity for the first time.

Prescott, 38, said she felt compelled to do that first anonymous media interview last year to let Quebecers know who Barwin is. 

Tracy-Lee Prescott is one of Barwin's 16 known biological children. (Supplied)

While the stories of Barwin's babies have received enormous media attention in the rest of Canada, Prescott maintains that in Quebec the story is less well-known, and fears there may be others like her who don't know who their biological father is. 

"We're everywhere. I was the only one in Gatineau, but I told myself there's got to be others. Of course it is not right what he did. People like me have the right to know," she said. 

Prescott said she always knew she was conceived with the help of a sperm donor. When allegations against her mother's fertility doctor started to multiply, she also had a DNA test organized through the law firm representing the growing class action, and became one of the first Quebecers to join. 

The woman who launched the suit in 2016 is Rebecca Dixon. 

Rebecca Dixon discovered Barwin was her biological father after she had a DNA test in 2016. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Dixon discovered through DNA testing four years ago that Barwin is her father, and said she doesn't know how many more half-siblings she may have. 

"I expect that maybe in 20 years someone will take a DNA test on Ancestry or 23andMe and we will find others," Dixon said. 

Dixon has been the subject of numerous English-language media reports, but she, too, believes the message hasn't reached Quebec.

"There haven't been as many stories in the Quebec media or in French, so I think there are people who haven't heard about this yet," she told Radio-Canada in an interview.

Quebecers sent to Barwin for insemination

Before 2018, there were no fertility clinics in the Outaouais region. Western Quebec couples often went to Ottawa, and Barwin, for artificial insemination. 

Still, the CISSS de l'Outaouais, the region's public health authority, told Radio-Canada there is no reference to Barwin in its archives, and the president of the Association of General Practitioners of Western Quebec, Dr. Marcel Guilbault, wrote in an email that he does not know of any Outaouais doctors who used Barwin's services. 

(CBC)

However one doctor, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed he referred patients to Barwin in the 1980s. He said at the time, very few doctors practised this type of fertility treatment, and patients generally wanted to stay in the region rather than travel to Montreal for insemination.

Instead, they were often referred to Barwin. 

16 known biological children

According to the lawsuit, there are now 16 known Barwin babies. Dixon said nine live in Ontario, three in British Columbia and four in Quebec. Two of them, both Quebecers, have only come forward to join the lawsuit since January. 

"I didn't expect to find two more people in the same month, four years after I started this whole experience. That tells me that we may find others in Quebec," Dixon said.

Norman Barwin received the Order of Canada in 1997 for his work on women's reproductive work. He resigned from the Order in 2013 when his professional misconduct came to light. (CBC)

A third Quebec-based plaintiff who did not want to be interviewed told Radio-Canada they believe there are likely other parents of Barwin babies in Gatineau.

The class action has not yet been certified, and the allegations against Barwin have not been proven in court. 

Barwin's lawyer declined Radio-Canada's request for an interview, or to answer questions sent by email.

The plaintiffs' lawyer, Peter Cronyn of the firm Nelligan O'Brien Payne, said he hopes to reach a negotiated settlement. 

"The class action is to allow for compensation, but we also want to create a vehicle to allow people to come forward and get the answers that they are looking for," Cronyn said.

Marie-Pier, right, and her mother Louise, left. Marie-Pier has now joined the class-action lawsuit against Barwin. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Meanwhile, Marie-Pier is adjusting to her new reality. 

"It's important to know your identity — your genes — to really know where you come from. I'm glad my parents told me, because it's part of me," she said.

About the Author

Antoine Trepanier has been a reporter for Radio-Canada since 2014. He's the author of a book about former Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache. Trepanier can be contacted at: antoine.trepanier@radio-canada.ca.

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