One of life’s greatest sorrows can be the quest to have a child when that most natural of processes just doesn’t seem to be happening. But in today’s world, advanced medical techniques can often help turn despair into joy. These days, many people now turn to fertility clinics for assistance.
Modern methods of helping women who can’t conceive include high-tech procedures such as in vitro fertilization (IVF). Much less sophisticated – though often effective – is the use of donor sperm to achieve pregnancy. Although this can be done informally, a sizeable number of women prefer a fertility clinic to provide the sperm.
One clinic offering such a service was the Bijdorp fertility clinic in the Netherlands. Located near the city of Rotterdam, the facility was run by a respected doctor called Jan Karbaat. Many people desperate to have children turned to Dr. Karbaat in the 1980s and ’90s. Indeed, the clinic is said to have aided some 10,000 conceptions during its period of operation from 1980 to 2009.
One person who made use of the Bijdorp fertility clinic’s services was Esther-Louise Heij. This was about 25 years ago, when Heij was 35. She had recently come out of a 12-year relationship, a big enough life event on its own. But she also made another momentous decision back then.
Despite the fact that she was now firmly single, Heij decided that she wanted to have children. And she was clear that she would do so using donor sperm from a fertility clinic. Furthermore, she resolved that her children should be able to trace the man whose sperm she used.
Often enough in the past, people who used donor sperm were content that the donor remained anonymous. In fact, some preferred it that way. In many countries, donors actually had the right to remain anonymous if they wanted to, although this prerogative was abolished in the Netherlands in 2005.
Speaking to The Guardian in July 2017, Heij recalled the moment she first visited the clinic. “The doctor seemed very good at what he did,” she said. “He talked me through what it would be like to raise children on my own; he seemed very serious and professional.”
And that doctor – Dr. Karbaat – had no problem with the idea that any children conceived should be able to trace their biological father. “He assured me that would be possible. He was an important doctor in a white coat. I trusted him; it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t.”
Karbaat seemed extremely keen to help Heij in any way he could. “He asked me for pictures of my relatives, so he could find a good match. And he said he would make sure the donor was a man who would be open to being traced later,” she remembered.
In fact, things were not easy for Heij. In her previous relationship, she’d gone through the trauma of two stillbirths. And at the clinic she endured an agonizing nine unsuccessful efforts at achieving her dream of a healthy child. But she persevered. Finally, her daughter Lotte came along in 1993, followed by a boy, Yonathan, in 1995.
Karbaat assured Heij that the sperm had come from the same donor, meaning that her two children were full siblings. Safe in the knowledge that the biological father could be traced if they wanted, Esther-Louise was open with her children. “A man gave his seed and that’s how you were born,” she told them. “If you want to know who he is you will get the chance to do that one day.”
Although the Heij children knew plenty of peers who didn’t have two parents at home, questions about where their dad was could be difficult, especially for Yonathan. Speaking to The Guardian, he recalled, “I made up a story about him being a man called Peter from Rotterdam, who was the captain of a ship, which explained why he was never around.”
Lotte Heij’s 16th birthday came round, but she had no strong feeling about knowing the identity of her genetic dad. But a couple of years later, when Yonathan turned 16, he felt quite differently. He very much wanted to meet his father.
“For a boy to grow up without a father figure is a big thing; a father is important, especially for a boy. I wanted to know who he was: there were things I wanted to ask him,” explained Yonathan. So, in 2011, Yonathan and his mother contacted the relevant authorities to start the process that would enable Yonathan to identify and meet his biological father.
But everything was not as it should have been. Apparently, files at Karbaat’s clinic had not been kept as scrupulously as they should. Finding out the identity of Yonathan’s father was not going to be the relatively simple matter that he and his mother had assumed.
Things went from bad to worse. Stories were swirling around that Karbaat had himself been providing the sperm to aspiring mothers. Yonathan recalled, “We were in shock – it was a feeling of total disbelief. Karbaat was a doctor, and to use his own sperm to get women pregnant would have been totally prohibited. It was difficult to process the enormity of what this meant.”
Then a Dutch TV station aired a documentary about the Bijdorp fertility clinic. The program speculated that as many as 200 children whose parents had used its services might actually have the same father. The scandal now became a very public affair.
Families who had used the clinic came together to take legal action. Some families had DNA tests and found they were related to children from other families, although DNA tests of Lotte and Yonathan Heij didn’t throw up any positive matches. Happily, though, they did prove that the two were full siblings. The aggrieved families also wanted to test their children against Karbaat’s DNA.
Karbaat refused point blank to give his DNA for testing, and he died at the age of 89 in April 2017. After his death, police raided his home and took away personal effects including his toothbrush. In June 2017 Dutch courts ruled that Karbaat’s DNA profile could be established from DNA samples taken from the items. Thus far, though, they have yet to rule on whether or not the results can be released to the families.
While the courts ponder their decision things remain frustratingly unclear for the Heij family – and an astonishing 200 others who may have been fathered by Karbaat. Yonathan told The Guardian, “Everything is up in the air now. I’m conscious that I may get a phone call tomorrow telling me who my father was, or I might have to wait 20 years.”