Six questions about the Dutch sperm gate: this is just the beginning
Four fertility doctors in the Netherlands used their own semen to help their ‘clients’. Not just once, but many times. One of them has more than 80 children. It might sound like Wild West, but this is just the beginning.
In 2011, Dr Jan Karbaat admitted to a lady that he sometimes used his own sperm to inseminate. And yes, the woman he told that could very well be one of his donor children.
Karbaat (1927-2017) was a pioneer in fertility. Even before the IVF technique was used, he had a clinic where he helped women to get pregnant. During those times, the donors had the guarantee to remain anonymous. That meant that nobody knew where all the sperm came from. Some of it came from the official fathers. Some of it was from donors. And some of it from the doctor himself.
What is the scandal now?
After much research, it became clear that Karbaat has 80 children. That number has been growing over the years, and one can expect that it will keep growing. In March 2021, the public broadcaster VPRO made a documentary about him, called “Het Zaad van Karbaat” (literally: “the Karbaat semen”, but in Dutch with a rhyming word joke).
Karbaat remained the only doctor from whom this was known for a long time. But in the past few months, more names have come in the publicity. In January, a clinic published an advert in national newspapers to ask women to contact them if they had been treated by a doctor called Jan Wildschut. Until now, the Wildschut number has reached 47.
There is another new case with doctor Jos Beek, whose offspring stands at 21 at the moment. And the latest scandal is around former gynaecologist Henk Nagel. The latest one is still alive and has admitted that he has done this “a few times”. Further research must show how many children he has. Experts in the field say that there are more hidden donors but that not all names are in the publicity.
Is this a Dutch phenomenon?
In a way, it seems so, yes. But there are scandals in other countries as well. In 1989 already, it came out that Cecil Jacobson (1936) in Utah, USA, had at least 75 children. Because of this and other fraudulent dealings, he got 5 years imprisonment. He received the nickname “sperminator”.
In 2021, the Washington Post and The Guardian have published about a Canadian IVF doctor, Norman Barwin, who used his own sperm instead of the semen from the woman’s husband. There are at least 17 people who have used DNA to discover having this doctor as a father. But more than 80 others have suspicions.
How could this happen?
Most of the cases are from the 1970s and 1980s. The techniques were not fully developed yet. For instance, fertilisations had to happen with fresh sperm instead of frozen semen.
Apart from that, the doctors might not have expected that this would all come out one day. The DNA technique is quite a new discovery. They might have thought that it would never be discovered at all that they were misleading vulnerable women.
Perhaps more important than new techniques being used, a new ethics was born out of the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s. For ages, parenthood was connected to marriage, as given by the Christian understanding of human relations and reproduction. That was no guarantee that everybody knew who his father was. But those were the exceptions. Most people knew their nieces and nephews.
After the ’60s, a new human being was born, prioritising autonomy and self-determination. This led to a lot of experimenting with social and sexual relations. Single motherhood became normalised, together with same-sex parenthood. The scandals we see now are a fruit of that new anthropology.
What motives did these men have?
Dr Jacobson (alias “sperminator”) said he did it for money. And above that, if he did this, humankind could be sure that the children would be smart and intelligent. In other words, he felt he could do this; the poor neighbour could not.
In general, what we know from sperm donors is that they find it a “nice idea” to have children whilst they don’t want to have a family.
Technically, these men were pioneers. And pioneers sometimes behave like cowboys, in the sense that they enjoy riding on the edge of the cliff.
Is this still going on?
No. According to Dutch law, since 2004, anonymous donation is no longer possible. Every donor child has the right to know their father from the age of 16.
In the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child from 1990, everybody has the right to know his parents and be raised by them (article 7). Almost all countries have signed this treaty and have to do something against anonymous sperm donation.
Apart from this, most countries have set limits for donations. This differs very much from country to country. In the Netherlands, the limit for a donor is to ‘help’ 12 families. In neighbouring Germany, the limit is 15 children. In Sweden, it is 12 children in 6 families.
We know that something went wrong in the past. But is this all history now?
Uh, no, on the contrary, this is just the beginning. We know that fertility clinics (or the so-called ‘sperm banks’) cannot enforce their suppliers. In the Netherlands, for instance, clinics ask their deliverers whether they supply at other clinics as well. If they answer no, they can go ahead. For years and years, critical people have been asking for a donor register, but that still does not exist.
Having the information that is known, it is clear that this whole business is out of control. Some “super spreaders” just lie about their work for other clinics. And they go abroad as well. In Denmark, there is the sperm bank Cryos International. And they present themselves as donors in private Facebook groups. It is impossible to check and stop them.
Journalistic research has shown serial donors with 500 to 1,000 children. The New York Times published an article in February 2021 about the Dutch musician Jonathan Jacob Meijer. He himself says that he is the father of 350 kids, but others guess he is nearer to the 1,000. But to the women who approached him, he said he had just a handful. For himself, it is the happiness of the young families that is leading.
The Dutch platform for journalistic investigation Follow the Money wrote in December 2021 that one of the mothers who worked with Meijer counted 234 siblings only in Holland. Some of them live in the same town or are even in the same school. It is very possible that sooner or later, some of the half-brothers and sisters will form relations and have their own children. For centuries, countries have made legislation to prevent direct family from marrying. But since parenthood ideologically is no longer coupled to marriage, it is difficult for a government to do something.
From its nature, sperm donation is a private phenomenon that is very difficult to control. An international register could help. But that would not cover private offers and contacts. A few weeks ago, the new Dutch Minister of Health, Ernst Kuipers, only advised women to go to a certified clinic. But reports about lying super spreaders have shown that women have no guarantee even there.
The Dutch government’s easier and more effective advice would be to connect sexuality and parenthood again with marriage. But such a moral appeal is impossible for a Liberal government. And therefore, mother Anneke, who spoke to Follow the Money, might be right when she said we are witnessing “an accident in slow-motion”.
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