Laura Howard was hoping her trip to a fertility specialist would make her dream of a child with the man she loves come true. But as she left the office, the doctor suddenly ran out to the lobby and called her back.
There was a grave mistake. Instead of being inseminated with the sperm of her fiance, she received a vial of semen from another man.
Howard learned she was pregnant on June 1, about two weeks after her visit to the clinic. She is now haunted by questions: Who is the father? Does he have any deadly diseases? Will her fiance stand by her, knowing the baby likely is not his?
“I don’t sleep. I am always stressed,” Howard said. “My fiance is very distraught. He had no intentions of raising someone else’s child.”
On Tuesday, Howard, a 40-year-old nurse, sued her fertility specialist, Dr. Anthony Santomauro.
Human error blamed
Medical malpractice attorney Madonna Sacco, who represents Santomauro, issued a statement Wednesday acknowledging an error was made and said the parties were trying to resolve the issues.
“Ms. Howard asked for and was given prescriptions to interrupt the insemination process,” Sacco said. “My client is terribly sorry that human error occurred and saddened that Ms. Howard decided not to take the medication she requested and was prescribed.”
Fertility experts were surprised and troubled by the case.
“That’s extremely unusual,” said Dr. Joe Massey, a fertility specialist at Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta. “Clinics typically have a vigorous labeling system to prevent this.”
But infertility law expert Mark Rothstein said some incidents may go unreported.
“This is a notoriously unregulated area that some of my colleagues have called the Wild West of medicine,” said Rothstein, a lawyer and director of the University of Louisville Institute of Bioethics, Health and Law. “I think it happens and in many cases we don’t know about it.”
Rothstein cited the case of former fertility doctor Cecil Jacobson, who was convicted of fraud in 1992 in connection with his former clinic in Virginia. Jacobson tricked some patients into believing they were pregnant and lied to others when using his own sperm to inseminate them, fathering at least 15 of his patients’ children, authorities said.
In another case, a jury last month awarded more than $400,000 to a North Carolina woman artificially inseminated with sperm that was “unwashed,” or unprepared for insemination. Kelly Chambliss said she became violently ill right after the procedure.
Howard said she and her fiance had been trying to conceive for years before she went to see Santomauro in May.
'You're still mine'
After realizing the mistake, Santomauro gave her a prescription for the morning after pill, Howard said, but she refused to take it. She said the doctor was “panicky” and encouraged her to get an abortion, but she said she decided to go forward with the pregnancy, citing her age and nearly five years of efforts to get pregnant.
“For me it’s still my child,” Howard said. “I’ve always wanted two.”
Howard, who is black, believes the sperm came from a white man. Both of the other couples at the clinic that day were white, she said.
Howard would not identify her fiance, saying he did not want to comment. But she said in an interview and in her lawsuit that the situation has taken a toll on their relationship.
She said there is still a chance her fiance could be the father but she won’t know until later in her pregnancy, when she can be tested.
Though she says she doesn’t need to know the donor’s name, Howard wants to know his medical history.
Her attorney, Bruce Jacobs, said employees at the fertility clinic have refused to disclose that information, although he suggested some progress has been made in talks between the parties. Jacobs said he’s hoping to get a court order for the information or that the donor will come forward voluntarily.
Howard, who also has complained to the state Department of Public Health, said she is undergoing testing for HIV and other diseases and even worries that the father could seek joint custody. She has not been told whether the donor knows that she was impregnated with his sperm.
The lawsuit contends Santomauro failed to properly label the sperm sample or have a system in place to prevent such an error.
A doctor for 35 years, Santomauro was educated at Columbia University. He is affiliated with Bridgeport Hospital, Yale-New Haven Hospital and St. Vincent’s Medical Center, according to the state.
Howard recalled how she eagerly anticipated the birth of her first child years ago, excited to think of a name, the clothes she would buy and the color of the room for the newborn.
Now she says she has too many worries to think like that. She said she has no idea how she’ll explain the situation when her second child becomes older.
“I have to look at that child and say ’You’re still mine’ and love this child with everything in me,” Howard said.