DNA testing has helped a lot of adoptees finally know the truth about their origins. Today, a review of a documentary titled Baby God caught my attention.
Cathy Holm was newly married at age 22, settling into a new home in Las Vegas, Nevada, and struggling to start a family. It was the early 1960s, and infertility was a largely taboo topic; devoid of options, she looked up a doctor listed as a “fertility specialist” in the phonebook. Dr Quincy Fortier, a respected obstetrician who opened Las Vega’s first women’s hospital, had a record of helping couples achieve a viable pregnancy, and promised to inseminate Holm with a sample of her husband’s sperm.
Decades later, in March 2018, Holm’s daughter, Wendi Babst, bought an ancestry kit to celebrate her retirement as a detective in the Clackamas county, Oregon, sheriff’s office. Like many Americans, Babst was hoping to glean a comprehensive picture of her genealogy, but she was unnerved by her DNA test results: numerous close matches, despite no known first cousins or half-siblings, and the repetition of a name she hadn’t heard of, Fortier.
The database unmasked, with detached clarity, a dark secret hidden in plain sight for decades: the physician once named Nevada’s doctor of the year, who died in 2006 at age 94, had impregnated numerous patients with his own sperm, unbeknownst to the women or their families. The decades-long fertility fraud scheme, unspooled in the HBO documentary Baby God, left a swath of families – 26 children as of this writing, spanning 40 years of the doctor’s treatments – shocked at long-obscured medical betrayal, unmoored from assumptions of family history and stumbling over the most essential questions of identity. Who are you, when half your DNA is not what you thought?
What was once the work of combing through records – birth certificates, death certificates, hospital archives – DNA testing sometimes becomes an inadvertent Pandora’s box of secrets. It even happened in my own family. A father named on the birth certificate turned out to be a lie as my youngest sister hid the awkward reality of how and by whom she became impregnated. It took ancestry that didn’t add up with the lie and private investigation and DNA testing to prove who the real father was. In my own marital relationship, we used assisted reproduction to have our sons. Thank goodness, DNA testing through 23 and Me has proven that their dad is the dad we thought they have.
Before inexpensive DNA made it possible to uncover one’s relations, there was a phenomenon of fertility fraud performed by at least two dozen American doctors. Though Dr Quincy Fortier never lost his medical license (he died in 2006), he did acknowledge his paternity of four children who were part of a quietly settled lawsuit in his will, and left open the possibility that more biological children would later be revealed.
A cavalier, brash attitudes toward sex and reproduction seems to have been one manifestation of widespread attitudes toward female fertility: a “doctor knows best” attitude, belief that women don’t need to know, the end justifies the means, all coupled with the lack of frozen sperm (which didn’t become common practice until the 1980s). Looking for answers from the legal system for this kind of fertility fraud is kind of misguided because it’s always been illegal. It’s battery, it’s malpractice, bottom line – you can’t put something in someone’s body without their consent.
The documentary Baby God premieres on HBO tonight (December 2nd).