A Washington state woman and her parents are suing an Idaho obstetrics clinic and one of its former doctors, alleging that the doctor used his own sperm to impregnate the woman's mother.
The suit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Pocatello, Idaho, and made public on Tuesday, seeks a jury trial and $10 million in damages from Dr. Gerald E. Mortimer, his wife and Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates of Idaho Falls, alleging medical malpractice, breach of contract and fraud.
The woman, Kelli Rowlette, 36, of Richland, Washington, alleges that in 1980, Mortimer agreed to inseminate her mother, Sally Ashby, using a mixture of sperm to improve Ashby's chances of conceiving. According to the lawsuit, the mixture was to have been made up of 85 percent from Ashby's husband at the time, Howard Fowler, and 15 percent from an anonymous donor who met specific criteria: that he be a college student over 6 feet tall who resembled Fowler.
Rowlette was duly born in May 1981 and didn't suspect that anything was amiss until last July, when she received a notification from the genetics research site Ancestry.com. According to the suit, Ancestry told Rowlette that a DNA sample she had submitted matched a sample that been submitted by Mortimer and that Mortimer was probably her father.
Believing the match to be in error, Rowlette discussed the test with her mother, who recognized Mortimer's name when she looked into the matter, according to the lawsuit.
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"When Ms. Ashby saw Dr. Mortimer's name, she was devastated," it says, adding, "Dr. Mortimer did not match the donor specifications" that he'd agreed to.
According to the lawsuit, Ashby and Fowler, who have since divorced, kept the secret from their daughter after Rowlette brought the matter up because of "the torment the discovery would cause their daughter when and if she found out." But in October, it says, Rowlette unearthed her birth certificate from Fowler's home and saw that the signature of the delivering doctor was Mortimer's.
"Mrs. Rowlette was horrified," the lawsuit says, and ever since then, she and her parents "have been suffering immeasurably."
The suit was jointly filed by Rowlette, Ashby and Fowler, who also live in Washington state.
Asked for comment, Rowlette's attorney, Sean Meehan, said in a statement that Rowlette, Ashby and Fowler "ask that their privacy be respected as they focus on the difficult process of healing from this trauma." Meehan didn't return a call seeking to establish why Mortimer's wife is named as a co-defendant.
No attorney of record was listed for Mortimer, and no phone number is available in public listings.
The Idaho Falls clinic told NBC News that nobody associated with the lawsuit was still working there. The clinic's current staff members "diligently strive to provide care to their patients that is in compliance with the standards of health care practice," it said.
As for the shock of discovering such momentous news from a website, Ancestry.com acknowledged in a statement that "people may learn of unexpected connections" using its services.
Apparently, Mortimer had also signed up for Ancestry’s service and had failed to make his information private. Ancestry said any customer can choose not have his identity disclosed to other customers because "anyone who takes a test can change their DNA matching settings at any time, meaning that if they opt out, their profile and relationship will not be visible to other customers."
"With Ancestry, customers maintain ownership and control over their DNA data," it said.
The case echoes that of Dr. Donald Cline of Indianapolis, a fertility specialist who pleaded guilty in December to lying to investigators about having used his own sperm to impregnate at least two patients. Cline, who retired in 2009, was given a one-year suspended sentence.