Sperm donor meets biological daughter in wake of 'Barwin babies' scandal

A donor whose sperm was used by disgraced Ottawa fertility doctor Dr. Norman Barwin says meeting his biological daughter has changed his life.

Fertility doctor Norman Barwin used wrong sperm at least 91 times, lawsuit claims

Murray Thorpe became a sperm donor in the mid-80s when he was a student. He said he wanted to help infertile couples conceive. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

A donor whose sperm was used by disgraced Ottawa fertility doctor Norman Barwin says meeting his own biological daughter has changed his life. 

Murray Thorpe was a student at Carleton University studying the psychological impact of infertility when he first heard of Barwin in the mid-1980s. He decided to become a sperm donor to help couples in need.

"For my research I was interviewing lots of couples and hearing what it was like for them," he told Radio-Canada in an interview. "I can help out these people who are so ready, willing and able to be parents … why would I not?" 

He made approximately 10 donations over a period of two years at Barwin's Broadview Fertility Clinic.

Norman Barwin was stripped of his licence to practise medicine in 2019. (CBC)

Barwin's professional misconduct first became known a few years ago when a number of people who had been conceived through artificial insemination came forward and launched a class-action lawsuit against him. 

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the class action say there are now 91 individuals who were conceived using the wrong sperm, including 16 conceived using Barwin's own sperm. 

The lawsuit has not yet been certified and none of the allegations against Barwin has been proven in court. Barwin declined an interview request. 

Thorpe is now concerned that his semen may not have been used as he intended. 

"My fear is that in fact my sperm was also misused, in whatever fashion. There's various ways that might have happened: either somebody chose my sperm and didn't get it, somebody who didn't choose my sperm got it, or that my sperm was used a lot," Thorpe said in an interview with Radio-Canada. 

Daughter learns the truth 

Media coverage of the "Barwin babies" scandal shook Gatineau, Que., couple Léonie Cloutier-Bouvier and Marc Bouvier. 

Léonie Cloutier-Bouvier and Marc Bouvier were patients of Norman Barwin in 1987. Cloutier-Bouvier became pregnant after one treatment. (Michel Aspirot / CBC)

"Our family doctor suggested we go to the Broadview clinic and Dr. Barwin. He was very well known at the time," Bouvier told Radio-Canada. 

Cloutier-Bouvier got pregnant after one attempt at artificial insemination. Their daughter Anik was born in 1988. 

They had decided not to tell her that Bouvier was not her biological father, but when they saw an interview with a woman who claimed to be the biological child of Barwin, they felt they had to tell their daughter the truth. 

"Doubt was starting to grow because of a certain physical resemblance [between them]," Bouvier said. "It was strong enough that we had chills."

Anik Grenier only learned two years ago that she'd been conceived through artificial insemination. (Jacques Racine/Radio-Canada)

Anik Grenier, by then 30 and married with children of her own, said that first conversation with her parents about how she was conceived was painful. 

"One day my parents called me up and said they were coming down to Montreal because they had some news to share," Grenier said. 

"It was definitely a shock and I was probably in a fog for a few months just trying to sift through all the emotions and making sense of this new truth that I was living."

Not a 'Barwin baby'

Like many others, she decided to take a DNA test through the firm that's managing the class action against Barwin. Grenier's result showed she was not Barwin's biological daughter. 

"We could kind of see similarities, but in hindsight I think we were just trying to grasp at straws," she said. 

Her parents were relieved. "I didn't want her to be part of it all," Cloutier-Bouvier said.

But for Grenier, it was just the start of her quest. Unable to track her biological father due to the anonymity surrounding sperm donations, she signed up with a popular genealogy website, hoping that her DNA would point her in the right direction. 

Within a few months she was contacted by a woman with a close genetic connection. She turned out to be Murray Thorpe's sister. 

Thorpe, who had never had children of his own, knew there was a very good possibility that his sperm had been used to father someone else's children. 

"There was certainly some element of shock," he said. "I had hoped, but often when there's something you really hope for and then it happens, you still don't quite know how to react to it." 

Within a week, Thorpe reached out to his biological daughter. 

"It was surreal ... but at the same time I think the connection we felt was immediate. We share a lot of interests and common beliefs, and conversation has always been fairly easy," Grenier said.  

Grenier, now 32, is hoping to find biological half-siblings. (Jacques Racine/Radio-Canada)

Looking for siblings

There is no way of confirming that Murray Thorpe's sperm was the sample chosen for use by Grenier's parents. Instead, he has reached out to the lawyers behind the class-action lawsuit to see if any of the other plaintiffs are his biological children. 

Law firm Nelligan O'Brien Payne is working on creating a DNA bank for the plaintiffs. According to the lawyers, very few of Barwin's donors have come forward, although they hope others will follow suit. 

"Donors like Murray Thorpe are important for us to be able to provide our clients with answers about their origins," said Frances Shapiro Munn, a partner at the firm.

Thorpe and Grenier are now hoping to track down more of Thorpe's offspring themselves through genealogy websites. 

Murray Thorpe, who became a sperm donor at Norman Barwin’s fertility clinic in the mid-80s, says meeting his biological daughter, Anik, has changed his life. 1:01

For Grenier, an only child, finding a sibling would be the icing on the cake after a journey she describes as "positive." 

"It's always been something I wanted, to have that connection," she said. "It would mean a great deal to me to find somebody."

And while Thorpe has concerns about how his sperm may have been used, the experience of finding his biological daughter has been life-changing. 

"It's been such a gift," he said. "In a moment, I became a father and a grandfather, and it still rocks me. It's such a profound change in how I see myself," he said. 

"Anik summed it up perfectly for me: 'The more family the better, the more love the better.'"

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