After a mix-up during their fertility treatment with disgraced Ottawa doctor Norman Barwin, a couple says Canada's fertility laws need to change and give people born through donor eggs or sperm the right to know their origins.
When an Ottawa couple learned in the early 2000s that they needed medical help to have children, they were referred to a doctor known locally as "the Baby God."
"All I saw was that he'd won the Order of Canada, that he was renowned, that patients revered him," said the mother. "I never saw anything that would suggest that there was a problem."
With the doctor's help, the couple went on to have two children. (CBC's The Current is not naming the couple to protect the identity of their children.)
A few years later, however, they started reading stories about him in the papers.
The first to catch their attention was in 2010, when two separate women sued the doctor because they'd been inseminated with the wrong sperm. Then, in 2013, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario investigated him for these and other incidents.
By mid-2014, their former doctor no longer had a medical licence. It occurred to the couple that they could have been victims, too.
"I wanted to go get the children tested," said the mother, who acknowledged that her husband was more reluctant.
"I guess part of me just really didn't want to know," said the father. "Because once I knew, I knew that it would not be possible to unknow that. So we just let it go."
In November 2016, the doctor, Bernard Norman Barwin, was in the news yet again — this time because his own sperm had been used to create children with patients of his clinic. The uncertainty was now too much for the mother, and she pushed to have the family tested.
By this time, a class action lawsuit, which has yet to be certified, had been launched against Barwin. It included not only the people conceived using the doctor's sperm, and their families, but other victims, too — mothers who'd been inseminated with the wrong sperm; offspring who were supposed to be full siblings but weren't; and men who had stored sperm before cancer treatment, and whose sperm was no longer usable.
Barwin has declined to comment.
The couple got in touch with the Ottawa law firm Nelligan O'Brien Payne, which was handling the case. The lawyers arranged for the mother, the father and the two children to have their DNA securely tested.
In March 2017, they got the results.
"When the email came in, we were getting ready to have dinner," the mother recalled. "My heart stopped." She started to cry. Her husband was sitting right across from her and asked what was wrong.
"I said, 'The results came in and the kids aren't yours. Neither one of them.'" The mother remembered he just looked at her stoically and smiled.
"The smile kind of said that that’s what he had been expecting," she said.
Before this happened, the couple had never given much thought to assisted reproduction. But they saw how little protection there was for families like theirs.
Peter Cronyn, the lead counsel on the class action lawsuit, said the fertility industry stands in stark contrast to how other industries are regulated.
"If you look at how our society has responded with a regulatory framework to protect our investments and our banking practices, it's an incredibly robust regulatory environment," he said.
"Yet our children have to be at least as important as our money is to us, and we have a vacuum — absolutely no regulatory framework to protect that aspect of our society."
So began a new and complicated chapter in this family's origin story.