How I learned the horrifying truth about my biological father

The Lie That Made Me

In 1989, Norman Barwin, a respected fertility doctor, helped my mother get pregnant with donated sperm. Decades later, we discovered that Barwin was secretly inseminating patients with sperm that he had no right to use, including his own. How I finally learned the truth about my biological father

By Aviva Coopersmith| Photograph by Gary Ogle
| February 22, 2022

In 1989, my mother, Penina Coopersmith, decided to get pregnant. Forty years old and chronically single, she’d always wanted a baby but had never had a serious relationship that lasted longer than a few years. She believed her window of opportunity was closing, so she decided to do it on her own.

My mom was every inch the independent woman. In her early 20s, she moved from her native New York to study architecture at the University of Toronto; she barely knew a soul in Canada. By the time she was 40, she was living in Ottawa and had a good job as the executive director of a government nonprofit. She was tough and self-reliant, and she was confident she could raise a child by herself.

My mom was adopted as a baby, and she knew she wanted a biological connection to her child. At first, she considered asking a friend of a friend to donate sperm. But she worried that such an arrangement would be emotionally and legally fraught, especially if the man wished to be involved in the baby’s life. Her only remaining option was artificial insemination using an anonymous donor. Her family doctor referred her to Norman Barwin, a respected Ottawa fertility specialist known to his patients as the “Baby God.” He was going to make her a mother.

Norman Barwin had thin lips, cartoonishly pointed eyebrows and small eyes that all but disappeared when he smiled. His skin was weathered and tanned, his face framed by a helmet of thick dark hair. He seemed kind and calm, with a South African accent slightly mottled by his time at medical school in Northern Ireland.

In 1973, he moved from Belfast to Canada, where Ottawa General Hospital hired him to run its high-risk pregnancy unit and co-direct its fertility clinic. It was an exciting time to be working in reproductive medicine. Shortly after Barwin’s move, the first pregnancy by in-vitro fertilization was reported in Australia. Meanwhile, methods for cryogenically banking sperm had recently been refined. With liquid nitrogen, samples could be held at extremely low temperatures for decades and thawed later for use. To capitalize on this technology, for-profit sperm banks started to appear in the U.S., and the artificial insemination market quickly took off. In the 1970s, an estimated 1,500 babies were born using artificial insemination in Canada. The following decade, that number grew to somewhere between 15,000 and 60,000.

Barwin soon established himself as one of the country’s pre-eminent gynecologists. He was regularly quoted in newspapers, speaking on topics like test-tube babies, vasectomies and PMS. While working at the General, Barwin was appointed associate professor in the obstetrics and gynecology department at the University of Ottawa, published numerous academic articles, and became president of the nonprofit Canadian Fertility Society. He performed gender-confirmation surgeries and advocated on behalf of trans patients at a time when few doctors would do so. Barwin set up Ottawa’s first high school sexual health clinic and toured an old school bus around the city, handing out flyers on sex education. People called it the “sex bus.”

How I learned the horrifying truth about my biological father
Norman Barwin was known as the “sperm king of Canada” for his ability to help patients conceive. Photo by Wayne Hiebert

Barwin was also a champion for women’s reproductive rights. As president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada, he lobbied MPs to keep abortion out of the Criminal Code. He even received the Order of Canada; the advisory board recognized the “profound impact” that his work had “on both the biological and psychosocial aspects of women’s reproductive health.”

His biggest claim to fame was his ability to get patients pregnant. When he gave talks, he was sometimes introduced as “the sperm king of Canada.” By 1980, he claimed to have helped conceive 118 babies with donor sperm and 148 babies with patients’ partners’ sperm. Four years later, he left the General to start the Broadview Fertility Clinic, the only private clinic in Ottawa practising artificial insemination. That year, he told the Ottawa Citizen he was inseminating five or six women a month using sperm he’d obtained, mostly from student donors. He paid each donor $50 per contribution.

Barwin’s patients were unaware of the real reason he’d left the General: he failed the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons gynecological exam multiple times. He had lost his hospital privileges and was no longer considered a specialist but rather a general practitioner. Tellingly, his lab coat and office door sported the word gynecology after his name rather than gynecologist. And his clinic continued to thrive.

When my mom decided to get pregnant, it could be hard to find a doctor in Canada who was willing to inseminate a single woman. Barwin was an exception. As he once argued in a scholarly article, “I believe that physicians involved in this kind of carefully planned parenthood should feel a responsibility to respect the request of single women and gay women as a basic human right.” As long as the women were loving, caring and financially stable—at least by his measure—he was happy to oblige.

My mother’s deepest desire was about to be fulfilled. Thanks to Norman Barwin, she was going to have a child of her own

My mom first visited Barwin for a consultation in the summer of 1988. His clinic was located in a drab building next to a suburban strip mall, his office walls lined with degrees, awards and photos of smiling babies he’d helped bring into the world. At that meeting, Barwin outlined how artificial insemination worked. On his office letterhead, he quickly sketched a uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries—a barely legible scrawl in red ink—and answered my mom’s questions about the process. She found him sincere and caring and impressively capable. She decided she was comfortable placing her body, and her future, in his hands.

Today, choosing a donor is like ordering out of a catalogue. Women scroll through dozens of men’s profiles, searching for traits they believe would make an ideal biological father. My mom had no such choice. The selection pool was minuscule, and Barwin told her he’d present her with one donor file at a time, which would contain just enough identifying details to ensure the child wouldn’t have sex one day with someone to whom they were biologically related. (Gross, but true.) My mom would have to sign an agreement stating she would never seek out the man’s identity.

The first donor profile consisted of two typed pages, including the donor’s code, A198. It stated that he was born in 1960, his blood type was O-positive, and he had wavy dark hair and hazel eyes. At six feet tall and 155 pounds, he was a string bean, and the profile also said he played guitar and piano. Barwin mentioned that, at the time of the donation, in the mid-1980s, A198 had been studying medicine at the University of Ottawa and was one of his students. A musical medical student sounded good to my mom, and she told Barwin she wanted to go ahead.

On a June day in 1989, my mom arrived at Barwin’s clinic. In the exam room, Barwin performed an ultrasound, confirmed that she was about to ovulate and then left to prepare A198’s sample. When he returned, he invited her to peer through a microscope at what looked like minute tadpoles furiously shaking their tails. “See,” he said, “nice and active. And a lot of them. There shouldn’t be a problem.”

My mom undressed from the waist down and lay on an examination table with her feet in stirrups. Barwin inserted a speculum and injected the sperm using a syringe with a thin, flexible tube attached to the end. The procedure took seconds. He put a plastic tampon-like stopper inside her and instructed her to lie on the table for 15 minutes with her legs raised so the sperm could be aided by gravity. When the time was up, she got dressed, returned to her car and drove home.

Within a few days, my mom noticed changes in her appetite, and she was sure the procedure had worked. A few weeks later, after she missed her period, an ultrasound confirmed that she was pregnant with me. My mom rarely lets emotion dictate her life, but she allowed herself to feel joy, excitement and relief. Her deepest desire was about to be fulfilled. Thanks to Norman Barwin, she was going to have a child of her own.

When I was a baby, my mom accepted a job at the Ministry of the Environment in Toronto, and we moved from Ottawa to a beautiful old house in Riverdale. As soon as I was old enough to notice that other kids had dads, I started to ask about my father. My mom said she’d wanted to have me, so she’d gone to a doctor for help. She shared everything she knew about my donor’s profile and explained that there was no way to discover his identity. He had decided to help a stranger start a family—on the condition that his involvement ended there.

How I learned the horrifying truth about my biological father
The author as a baby with her mother, Penina Coopersmith, who was fiercely independent and determined to raise a child on her own

My mom raised me to be as practical as she was, so it didn’t make sense to dwell on who my father might be. That’s not to say I wasn’t curious. When we visited Ottawa, I’d scan the faces of strangers on the street, imagining that I might recognize one of them as my dad. It was far-fetched, daydreamy stuff. The rational part of my brain accepted that there was no way to find him. I never felt that a part of me was missing, as some adoptees and donor-conceived children do. In Grade 4, a kid at school tried to taunt me by calling me “bastard,” but I didn’t get it—being fatherless didn’t seem like that big a deal.

I also had a great relationship with my mom. She worked from home for much of my childhood, so she was always around. In many ways I was spoiled—with toys and trips and extracurriculars—but she also took me seriously. I was expected to carry on conversations with adults, to eat my vegetables, to do well in school and to entertain myself when necessary. I didn’t mind. My mom was the centre of my world, and I shared all of her interests, possibly out of a subconscious desire to please her. We would go to museums and classical music concerts, and when my classmates were watching Barney, I couldn’t get enough of Funny Girl.

How I learned the horrifying truth about my biological father

As much as I loved my mom, my childhood was profoundly lonely at times. I had great friends, but I always wished for siblings to keep me company, to make life more fun and to take some pressure off my close but intense relationship with my mom. I repeatedly asked her for a brother or a sister, but to my disappointment, she told me she was too old.

In the early 2000s, the door seemed to crack open an inch when my mom read a New York Times article that mentioned the Donor Sibling Registry, or DSR. An American woman named Wendy Kramer and her 10-year-old son, Ryan, had started the website in 2000. Ryan was conceived using an anonymous donor, and the Kramers were sure that other families had used the same man’s sperm. They saw the internet as a potential forum for them to connect, so they created a Yahoo group, which would eventually become the DSR. After its first year, the registry had all of 14 members. But media attention brought more traffic, and by 2003 it had its own website and database, and it was starting to facilitate matches between relatives. To date, more than 77,000 people from around the world have joined the site, and 21,500 people—donors, children and siblings—have connected, including Ryan and 21 of his half-brothers and -sisters. I browsed the site and saw some donors searching for their offspring. What if my biological father wondered about me?

How I learned the horrifying truth about my biological father

I was 15 at the time, and though I had been telling myself that I didn’t care about finding my biological father, the DSR had rekindled my interest. I once sat on my bed for an entire afternoon googling “University of Ottawa Medical School” over and over again with each year from the 1980s, hoping I would miraculously recognize myself in one of the photos that popped up.

Over the next few years, I’d occasionally return to my research. At one point, I looked into Barwin and his clinic and encountered some disturbing information. In 1995, a lesbian couple had sued him, alleging that he’d used sperm from someone other than the donor they’d chosen. (The case was settled out of court.) The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario was informed but took no action other than to contact Barwin, who said he was taking measures to prevent similar errors from happening again.

There was another lawsuit 14 years later. In this case, he had been supposed to inseminate a woman’s sister, who was acting as a surrogate, with the husband’s sperm. Soon after the birth, they discovered that the baby’s blood was Rh positive, which didn’t make sense given that both the husband’s and the sister’s blood were negative. Through DNA testing, the family determined that the child was not biologically related to the husband. In an interview with the Globe and Mail at the time, Barwin seemed embarrassed and humbled, describing the supposed mix-up as his “worst nightmare.”

The following year, Barwin was sued yet again, this time by a single mom who, like the couple from 1995, alleged that he had inseminated her with sperm from someone she hadn’t chosen. Using the DSR, she’d connected with other parents who had picked the same donor, number 3168, from a sperm bank in Toronto called ReproMed. But DNA testing revealed that the woman’s daughter was not related to either of the donor’s other children.

In the wake of the lawsuits, the college’s discipline committee conducted its own hearing and ultimately slapped Barwin on the wrist, banning him from practising medicine for two months and ordering him to pay $3,650 to cover the costs of the proceedings. Barwin, who by this time had stopped performing artificial inseminations, admitted to professional misconduct and resigned from the Order of Canada. The following year, he retired at age 74.

I also discovered some bizarre accounts of Barwin’s amateur running career. In 1999, he finished first in his age group in the Royal Victoria Marathon, in B.C., with an impressive time of just under three hours. This qualified him for the Boston Marathon, which he ran the following year at three hours and 17 minutes, coming in 14th among men over 60. It soon emerged that something was amiss. In order to avoid another Rosie Ruiz, Boston had extensive cheat-checking procedures in place. Three days after the 2000 race, the marathon’s commissioner sent Barwin a letter stating that he had failed to appear at multiple checkpoints along the route. A few weeks later, he was disqualified and banned from future participation. When confronted by the Ottawa Citizen, Barwin said that a hernia had flared up mid-race and he had gotten a lift to the end of the course so he could experience the thrill of crossing the finish line. Maybe Barwin could have passed this off as an aberration—a moral slip triggered by a painful ailment. But, the following year, he was again caught cheating while running a race, this time during Ottawa’s National Capital Marathon.

At first, I wrote off these stories as sloppy mistakes and momentary lapses in judgment. I was in my early 20s and not in the habit of questioning authority figures—especially not a man who’d dedicated his life’s work to helping people, including my mom. A man who had given me life. But the more I read, the more troubled I became. I started to wonder how far Barwin’s deception extended.

In 2014, I was personally and professionally at loose ends. I had just moved back to Toronto after a fun but exhausting year in New York, and I’d recently gone through a difficult breakup. I was trying to get a small business off the ground, growing flowers at an urban farm in Downsview Park and arranging them for farmers’ markets and weddings. I was staying with my mom while a friend and I looked for an apartment, and it wasn’t going well. After a few years of independence, I felt stifled once I was back under her roof.

Around that time, I saw that a message board for Barwin’s patients had been created on the Donor Sibling Registry. I paid the $100 membership fee. I thought that maybe finding a new family member—when I wasn’t particularly getting along with the only one I had—would ground me.

The day after I joined the DSR, I ordered a DNA testing kit from 23andMe; DNA databases have become powerful instruments for donor offspring seeking family members. While I waited for my test to arrive, I scanned the DSR message board dedicated to Barwin. Six or seven people had posted information about themselves and their donors, and one stood out. Kat Palmer lived in Vancouver and was pursuing a career in musical theatre. Her parents had visited Barwin in 1990 so her mother could be inseminated with a donor’s sperm. We both had wavy dark hair and brown eyes, and we were close in age. I thought we might be half-sisters, and I reached out. Kat was excited when I messaged her and immediately added me on Facebook. “Even if nothing comes of this, it’s always nice to have someone who gets this whole crazy situation,” she wrote.

Unlike me, Kat had no idea growing up that she’d been conceived via donor. Barwin and other medical professionals had advised her parents not to tell her—they believed the knowledge would damage Kat’s relationship with her father. But both of her parents had blue eyes, and hers were brown. In Grade 9 biology, she learned that blue and blue do not a brown eye make. She confronted her mom, who admitted the truth but asked Kat not to say anything to her dad. Then, a few years later, he brought it up with her. He was clearly nervous, worried that she would reject him. Instead, it was a turning point for their relationship. With everything out in the open, they became even closer.

I realized my mom had been inseminated with the wrong sperm. My heart raced, and my body filled with revulsion

By the time Kat was in her early 20s, she’d decided she wanted to find her donor. She was spending endless hours on the DSR and combing through various genealogy databases. She had even gone so far as to contact Barwin in an attempt to find out more, but his office had given her the runaround.

A few months after we connected, in May 2014, Kat and I learned we weren’t siblings. The following summer, she messaged me on Facebook with some distressing news. Barwin had told her parents that her donor’s origins were German and Irish, but her first DNA test revealed that her donor’s origins were Ashkenazi Jewish. People had always told Kat that she had a joyful, contagious smile. When she googled a photo of Barwin, she saw that same smile reflected back at her. Using a site called FamilyTreeDNA, she matched with a cousin who was also a relative of Barwin. After tracing the family history, she learned the truth. Norman Barwin was her biological father. Instead of using an anonymous donor, he had inseminated her mother with his own sperm.

I felt for Kat—what she was going through was horrifying—but I was also relieved: if Kat and I weren’t related, Barwin couldn’t be my father. And yet I still knew something was off about the story of my own conception. My 23andMe results said my donor’s family was Italian. The file that Barwin provided described my donor as Russian and Polish. Even more unsettling, 23andMe said that my blood type was likely A positive. I knew that my mom and her supposed donor both had O-positive blood, and a quick internet search revealed that two O positives could not produce an A-positive baby. This simple genetic lesson had been within reach my entire life; I just hadn’t let myself notice. My mom had been inseminated with the wrong donor’s sperm. My heart raced, and my body filled with revulsion.

So far, I’d told my mom only about the most basic elements of my search. I didn’t want her to think that I was looking for more family because she wasn’t enough. I’d kept silent because she meant everything to me but also because she was all I had. Barwin’s betrayal, however, involved her intimately, and she needed to know. When I phoned her, I expected rage. Instead, she calmly defended Barwin and suggested (wrongly) that Kat could be making things up. I was furious at her blithe denial, but I realize now that she was in shock. What I was telling her contradicted everything she knew about the man to whom she owed so much. It took some time, but eventually she was as anxious and disgusted as I was.

When Kat learned the truth about Barwin, she tried to confront him. He acknowledged that he might be her biological father and eventually chalked up his “inadvertent medical error” to contamination of a new sperm-counting machine that he had tested with his own sperm the year she was conceived. Barwin agreed to undergo a paternity test, which yielded a positive result. Kat wanted him to tell his family about her. His children were her siblings, and she believed she had a right to know them. She went back and forth with him for a year. He said he would tell his children but then didn’t. The revelation, he told Kat, would destroy his family.

Kat also suspected that she had other siblings out there and that he was trying to hide them from her. She reached out to the woman who had sued Barwin in 2009 for inseminating her surrogate sister with the wrong sperm. The woman suggested that Kat speak with her lawyers at Nelligan O’Brien Payne. Through Nelligan, Kat learned that there was another young woman in Ottawa who looked a lot like Barwin. Her name was Rebecca Dixon, and she and her parents had recently gone to Nelligan with the suspicion that Barwin had inseminated Rebecca’s mother with sperm from someone other than her father. Incredibly, they figured it out using the same fact Kat had learned in Grade 9 biology: both of her parents had blue eyes, but Rebecca’s were brown. Rebecca had also recently developed celiac disease, a hereditary condition that didn’t run in either of her parents’ families.

In the Dixons’ first meeting with Nelligan, Rebecca’s dad suggested the possibility that Barwin might be her biological father. She was appalled by the prospect, but she couldn’t deny that they shared a resemblance. Barwin refused to take a paternity test, so she compared her DNA with Kat’s. It was a match: they were half-sisters on their paternal side. The two women, only a year apart in age, had attended the same high school but hadn’t known each other. Although they were happy to have found each other, they were both distressed by the circumstances.

In November 2016, Rebecca and her parents launched a class-action lawsuit against Barwin. It quickly expanded to include people who were not his offspring but who believed that the wrong genetic material had been used at the time of their or their children’s conception. My mom and I knew that she had been inseminated with sperm from someone other than the donor she’d chosen, so we joined the class action as plaintiffs. Barwin’s glittering career was finally being exposed as a web of deceit.

I was no closer to knowing my biological father’s identity, but in February 2019, I received a message on 23andMe from a cousin on my father’s side, whom I’ll call Stephanie to protect her privacy. When she received a 23andMe test as a gift, she expected to learn more about her ancestry, not about the existence of a new family member. Still, she was excited to connect and to help me with my search. I found myself even more eager to figure out my donor’s identity once it was so close at hand.

Stephanie’s father came from a large Italian family in Ottawa, and because of our genetic relationship, she was pretty sure that my biological father was one of three of her father’s male first cousins. It felt straight out of Mamma Mia. Stephanie didn’t know much about these men; her paternal family wasn’t very close. But I spent hours researching them online, poring over their social media profiles and those of their children, my possible half-siblings. I could see myself in some of them, in our ears, in the arch of our eyebrows. For the first time in my search, I let myself get excited.

After some soul-searching about whether I should contact them, I decided I had to know. I figured my biological father had been a willing donor, so learning about my existence wouldn’t surprise him. In the span of a couple of hours, I found their work email addresses online, composed a long letter explaining what had happened with Barwin and sent it separately to all three. I was worried that, if I didn’t do it then and there, I’d lose my nerve.

I never heard back from any of the Mamma Mia candidates, but about two months later, I got an email from a lawyer working on the class action against Barwin. One of the three men who’d received my email had reached out to the firm; I’ll call him Sean. He had never been a sperm donor, but he was pretty sure he was my biological father. After having several children with his then wife, Sean had decided to have a vasectomy. Prior to the operation, he stored some sperm with Barwin in case he ever decided he wanted more kids. About a decade later, Sean and his second wife went back to Barwin, intending to inseminate her with Sean’s sperm, but the procedure was unsuccessful.

It became clear that, within months of Sean’s initial visit, Barwin had taken his sperm and used it to impregnate my mom. Before I wrote to him, Sean had no idea about my existence, and the revelation was clearly a shock. Beyond the betrayal of his stolen sperm, it must have been heartbreaking for him to learn that a complete stranger bore and raised his biological child while his wife couldn’t. The scenario I’d imagined was that one donor’s sperm had been exchanged for another’s, but this was so much worse. Sean was an unwilling donor. He’d never wanted to create me, never consented to do so.

His reaction made things even harder. He said he did not want to have contact with me, and in the three years since I first wrote to him, we’ve communicated only through the lawyers. He has shared some family medical information but has made it clear we won’t have any kind of relationship.

The class-action suit alleges that at least 17 people were conceived using Barwin’s sperm

Sometimes I understand where Sean is coming from. At other moments, I’m deeply hurt by his response. I don’t think I could ever embrace him as a dad. I’m not the kind of person who thinks that blood is the only thing that makes a family. And I don’t think he owes me anything. But isn’t he curious? My greatest fear during the donor search was rejection. It was why I kept myself emotionally detached for so long. And, sure enough, this person who doesn’t even know me has said that he wants nothing to do with me, and that’s devastating. I wonder if it would have been easier coming from my intended donor, where zero contact was part of the original contract.

As far as I know, Sean has not told his children—my half-siblings—about me. The thought that he’s ashamed of me is humiliating. I share a mutual friend with one of my half-siblings, and this friend has said that she sees similarities in our personalities and appearances and thinks we’d get along. Maybe one day we’ll meet. But I’ve gone 31 years of my life as an only child, and I’m okay with a couple more.

In November 2021, an Ontario Superior Court judge approved a $13.375-million settlement against Barwin. Although Barwin’s reputation has been destroyed, he is not paying out of pocket for the lawsuit. He’s admitted no wrongdoing and continues to deny the claims against him. The damages will be paid by the Canadian Medical Protective Association, a professional association that functions like an insurer, and distributed among approximately 250 claimants. Money from the settlement is also being used to set up a voluntary private DNA database for those involved.

The lawsuit alleged that, over the course of Barwin’s career in Canada, at least 17 people were conceived using his sperm. At least another 83 are in my situation, where biological material from someone other than the chosen donor was used. The rest of the class-action plaintiffs are former patients: women like my mom, who never consented to being inseminated with the sperm used to impregnate them; fathers like Rebecca’s, who have had to contend with the discovery that their children are not biologically related to them; and men like Sean, who stored their sperm with Barwin for safekeeping only to have it used to conceive a stranger’s child. Claimants had until the end of February to come forward, and individual compensation will depend on the applicable category of harm determined through the settlement agreement. When the class action was first launched, I imagined that my mom and I might get a few thousand dollars. Instead, we’ll each likely be receiving $30,000—more than I could have hoped for. The money can never heal the sense of violation and betrayal we feel, but at least it’s tangible recognition that we were wronged.

In 2019, Barwin was called before the College of Physicians and Surgeons’ disciplinary committee again for professional misconduct. This time, it revoked his medical licence (even though he was already retired), handed him a $10,730 fine and issued a public reprimand. “Your behaviour has been beyond reprehensible. Your patients represent a group who were vulnerable and who placed themselves and their families completely in your trust,” it read. “You betrayed that trust and by your actions deeply affected individuals and their families and caused irreparable damage that will span generations.”

Through his lawyers, Barwin declined my interview requests for this story, and because he settled the lawsuit, the allegations in the class action were never tested in court. He has never spoken publicly about the case, but he previously pleaded no contest to identical allegations at the college. We may never know why he did what he did or the true extent of his deception.

During the lawsuit, Kat and Rebecca grew close to many of their half-siblings. Some of them would have liked to see the case go to court, to draw public attention to the problems in the fertility industry. Barwin operated within a system that enabled his conduct. Health Canada inspection records later revealed that, between 1999 and 2002, the agency had inspected Barwin’s clinic and uncovered numerous violations of federal regulations, including mishandled and missing sperm. Yet he still passed as compliant, and the inspectors’ findings were not shared with the college.

There have been dozens of reported cases of doctor donor fraud across the globe, some resulting in hundreds of offspring. When most of these doctors were impregnating their patients, they could not have known that the internet would develop into something that had the power to expose them. Kat’s and Rebecca’s revelations blew the lid off what must have once seemed foolproof: deceiving women about the treatment of their own bodies by giving them the babies they so desperately wanted. This intimate lie was undetectable for decades until mail-order DNA tests and tools like the Donor Sibling Registry obliterated any pretense of anonymity among sperm donors.

In 2004, Canada passed the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, regulating how donated sperm is tested and processed and prohibiting its sale for profit. People affected by fertility fraud are calling for stronger regulation of sperm donation, including a publicly accessible registry of donor-conceived births, and more stringent inspections and enforcement of fertility clinics. They also want the right to know one’s genetic identity enshrined into law. Even before the advent of the internet, the U.K. and Sweden banned anonymous donation on the premise that people have the right to know about their origins.

My mom describes the situation as “bizarre” and “gross,” and Barwin as “evil” and “criminal,” but tends to dismiss her own experience as a creepy misadventure with an ultimately happy outcome (i.e., me). Until I started writing this story, I felt the same way. I was numbed to the horror of what happened and have only recently started to make sense of my feelings. When I think about the disturbing form of control that Barwin exerted over my mom’s body, about the unbelievable betrayal of her trust, I feel sick to my stomach. She made a bold decision about her reproductive system and her future, one I’ve always proudly seen as feminist. And yet she was undermined by the same doctor who was supposed to help her achieve a new form of independence.

The prospect of never meeting Sean and never having the chance to learn what we have in common is sad and frustrating. Ultimately, though, my sense of self remains stable. And, for that, I can thank my mom. She was nurturing enough to make questions about nature seem irrelevant. She was all the family I ever needed.

This story appears in the March 2022 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $24.99 a year, click here.


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