The Current

Ottawa family sues fertility doctor for use of wrong sperm — his own

Somewhere in the back of his mind Dan Dixon always thought his daughter didn't look much like him. Now the Dixon family has filed a lawsuit alleging the doctor who treated them during fertility treatments used the wrong sperm — his own.
Rebecca with her parents, Davina and Dan Dixon. The family is suing fertility doctor Dr. Norman Barwin, the biological father of their daughter, who used his sperm during fertility treatment. (Courtesy of Dixon family)

Read story transcript

After years of trying to have a baby, Dan and Davina Dixon sought medical help from an Ottawa fertility specialist Dr. Norman Barwin. And in 1990, their daughter Rebecca was born.

Now, however, the family has learned Dan is not Rebecca's biological father after all. Dr. Barwin is.

"There were clues along the way," Davina says in Alison Motluk's documentary, And That's Why Everything Is Different.

When Rebecca was diagnosed with celiac disease, often hereditary, Dan and Davina began to go through the list of things over the years that just didn't add up.

"I said, 'Well, there is a quick way we could find out.' Why don't we get her blood type? Because I'm AB and Davina is O. So if Rebecca were an O we would know for sure she wasn't ours."

A blood test confirmed Rebecca's blood type was O, and she could not be the biological child of Dan.

"When I first found out, I felt disassociated from my body and my face," recalls Rebecca. 
Lyon Palmer and his daughter Kat. (Courtesy of Kat Palmer)

"When I'd look in the mirror, I felt like suddenly it wasn't my face. Features about myself that I'd always liked, or just thought of as my own seemed like they might belong to someone else, and I didn't know who that was."

"I think Dan had thoughts that Dr. Barwin had used his own sperm. Because he thinks Rebecca looks like Dr. Barwin," says Davina.

The family lawyer also felt it was possible and had come into contact with another young woman, Kat Palmer, who had also been conceived through Barwin's clinic. Palmer could be Rebecca's half-sibling.

"This is what I wanted all along, to find a half-sibling. She's great!" says Kat.

"I didn't think we would be as close as we've become."

DNA tests confirmed that Kat and Rebecca share a biological father. And Kat was confident that man was Dr. Barwin.

When a paternity test came back positive, Dr. Barwin told Kat he had no idea how this could have possibly happened.

Kat's father Lyon remembers Dr. Barwin shaking like a leaf when they first met.

"He admitted to me that he used his own sperm to test out a sperm counter. That made no sense."

Kat Palmer wanted all along in her search to find her biological father to find a half-sibling. She is so happy to have Rebecca Dixon in her life. (Courtesy of Kat Palmer)

"I feel very strongly that secrets feel shameful," Rebecca says.

"One reason I am relieved every time I tell someone in my life about this … is that it takes away that feeling of shame."

Recently, the Dixons filed a class action lawsuit against Dr. Barwin, alleging that he used the wrong sper: in their case, his own instead of Dan's.

The plaintiffs are asking that Dr. Barwin makes his DNA available so that all concerned parties can come forward and test against it.

None of these allegations have been proven in court. Through his lawyer, Barwin declined to comment on the allegations. 

In emails to both Kat and her father Lyon, Barwin told them the mix-up was unintentional.

"My world has been turned upside down," says Dan. "Rebecca is our child, but she's not our child. She is, but she's not."

"And that's why everything is different."

Listen to the documentary.

If you were effected by this story and are seeking help, try the Barwin Support Network

The documentary That's Why Everything Is Different was produced by Alison Motluk and The Current's documentary editor Joan Webber.