Conception Deception

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In 1984, Pauline Chambless went to Dr. Kim McMorries in Nacogdoches for help after she struggled for more than a decade to have a child. After multiple attempts using donors from a California sperm bank, Dr. McMorries located a local sperm donor he described as a tall, red-haired, music-loving, medical resident at a nearby hospital. McMorries personally administered artificial insemination and Pauline’s daughter, Jessica, was born in March 1987.

Jessica Stavena, now a young mother of three, lives in the Houston suburbs and runs a medical spa at a Houston plastic surgery practice. In early 2020, she tried a consumer DNA test as a way to unravel the origins of a troubling gastro-intestinal issue. She knew she was a donor baby, but when she got her online test results in February, she was confused: Stavena matched with several unexpected half siblings, including a woman named Eve Wiley, another slim blonde from East Texas. 

Born only months apart, the pair bore a resemblance, and Stavena soon received a Facebook message from Wiley, who asked if her mother had also worked with the same OB-GYN. “Heya!! Omg!!” Jessica replied, surprised and thrilled at the coincidence.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Wiley responded. “He’s also our biological father.”

Back in 1986, Wiley’s parents also visited Dr. McMorries. For years, Wiley and her mother believed her biological father to be “Donor 106” from the same California sperm bank Stavena’s mother initially chose. Wiley wrote McMorries after learning in mid-2018 that the physician was linked to her through multiple consumer DNA test matches—a relationship separately verified by a nationally-known DNA expert, after Wiley shared her story with ABC’s 20/20.

In a series of emails, Dr. McMorries explained that he first became a sperm donor as a medical student at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston in the 1970s and admitted adding his own sperm to the samples patients selected from California. McMorries said he never told her mother or other patients because standard protocols were to keep all sperm donors anonymous, and told her to expect one or two more siblings from his artificial insemination donor program, along with his own three children, and possibly more. I hope all of this can be of some help in confirming your roots (that is I am your biological father), as well as what to expect with the number of siblings,” he wrote in a March 2019 email. So far, Wiley and Stavena say they have found at least seven children tied to McMorries’ sperm donations through consumer DNA matches. They suspect there are more.

Last year, Wiley and her mom inspired the passage of one of the nation’s toughest laws against a practice some call “fertility fraud.” In emotional testimony to Texas senators, Wiley described how she learned of McMorries’ deception after other doctors advised her to seek DNA testing to explore her health history that might unravel her son’s mysterious gastro-intestinal problems. Wiley found some health answers, but the DNA test also revealed genetic links to McMorries, setting off a domino effect that compelled her first to tell her mother, then Donor 106; at 18, Wiley met him, believing he was her biological father, and developed a relationship. “He officiated at my wedding,” she recalls. “My kids called him Papa.”

Texas legislators, after hearing the story, made it a felony sexual assault for any Texas doctor to secretly impregnate patients using his own sperm. But the law, which took effect in September 2019, is not retroactive, and the physician whose actions inspired the reform is not subject to prosecution. McMorries, now in his late 60s, still sees patients at an infertility clinic in Nacogdoches. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

In March 2020, Stavena decided to file a complaint against McMorries with the Texas Medical Board. She has urged the board to discipline McMorries for lying to and impregnating patients, like her mom. To Stavena, what McMorries did is a horrific form of sexual abuse. “He took advantage of her during one of the most vulnerable times in her life,” she said. Both Stavena and Wiley’s mother also filed complaints and supplied detailed medical records.

So far, the Texas Medical Board has been more reluctant than the legislature to act. 

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Jody Madeira is an Indiana University law professor who has become an expert in what she calls “fertility fraud,” a phenomenon that has only recently started to be revealed   through the boom in consumer DNA tests. In recent years, Madeira has tracked 20 cases in the United States involving hundreds of children conceived by doctors who surreptitiously used their own sperm to impregnate patients. She’s found cases abroad, too, documented in her report “Holding Physicians Accountable for Fertility Fraud.”

Few doctors publicly accused of fertility fraud have been criminally prosecuted, Madeira found. In Indianapolis, for example, a physician named Donald Cline was forced to surrender his license and convicted of obstruction of justice only after he lied to an Indiana Attorney General’s official investigating complaints. So far, Cline has been tied to 76 children based on consumer DNA tests.

But Madeira said that McMorries is the only doctor she’s publicly tracked who is still practicing medicine. “It really bothered me that McMorries was still out there,” she said. She says there are plenty of ethical and regulatory reasons that “his medical license should be taken away.” In June of 2019, Madeira filed her own complaint against McMorries with the Texas Medical Board. Four months later, she received a letter with a preliminary finding that McMorries did not “fall below the accepted standard of care” partly because state law generally prevents the board from taking action in cases involving treatment delivered so long ago. But Madeira’s complaint remains under review. 

Madeira is astounded that the board has not already taken action. Even in the 1980s, physicians like McMorries had protocols that they should have followed for sperm donors, who are normally registered and screened. While regulatory agencies in other states and Canada have found that doctors implicated in fertility fraud violated standards of care, new laws in Texas and at least four other states leave gaping holes and gray areas about whether older doctors involved in fertility fraud can ever be held accountable. 

In other states, some parents, and a few children, have filed medical malpractice lawsuits against physicians accused of fertility fraud. That’s possible because many states have more flexible discovery rules that allow patients to sue doctors for malpractice even if they first learn about problems years after receiving treatment. But Texas has a much tighter time limit. The victims in Texas all discovered potential evidence of fertility fraud through consumer DNA tests taken three or more decades after their births, Madeira said. That time lag has made it virtually impossible for their mothers to pursue litigation under discovery rules for medical malpractice cases in this state.

It remains to be determined if the Texas Medical Board can, or will, use its own disciplinary rules to take regulatory action against McMorries. The board is expected to hear witnesses and discuss the complaints at a closed hearing in mid-September. A spokesman for the board declined comment. 

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Photograph of Maia Emmons-Boring as a girlPhotograph of Maia Emmons-Boring as a girl  Courtesy of Maia Emmons-Boring

Maia Emmons-Boring, a stay-at-home mother of four in San Antonio, never expected to become a “donor deceived” advocate. When she ordered a consumer DNA test in December 2018 to explore her roots, she knew nothing of her father’s infertility issues. The initial online results confounded her: They suggested that she shared none of her dad’s Czech heritage. 

Things got weirder on December 31, 2018. She was attending a New Year’s Eve Party when a stranger texted her. The woman said she’d just received an online notification from the same consumer DNA company and they were likely half-sisters. Emmons-Boring went into a spiral. She figured her mother must have had an affair. Then the stranger texted again to say she’d been conceived by a sperm donor and added that her mother had been treated by Paul B. Jones, the same OB-GYN Emmons-Boring remembered while growing up in Grand Junction, Colorado. Emmons-Boring grabbed her husband and showed him the texts. 

“What does this mean?” she asked.

“I think it means your dad isn’t your biological father,” he said.

Emmons-Boring remembered Dr. Jones, partly because he introduced her to her newborn baby sister in the nursery—a once-treasured memory that she now finds unbelievably creepy.

Emmons-Boring spent several frantic weeks digging through genealogy databases to construct an elaborate family tree reaching back to the 1600s that linked her and a still-growing number of newly discovered half siblings with Jones. Emmons-Boring also convinced her little sister to take a test too, revealing she had likely been conceived with Jones’ sperm as well.

Emmons-Boring then confronted her mother, who reluctantly admitted to receiving artificial insemination treatments. Her mother was horrified that Jones had used his own semen to impregnate her and others and saw the revelation as “a violation.” She also recalled that Jones had always asked to be alone when he artificially inseminated her, an act that had been repeated for years as she made multiple attempts to get pregnant.

In 2019, when Emmons-Boring discovered the fertility fraud, Jones was 80 years old and still had a Colorado medical license. Emmons-Boring, her parents, and other victims hired a Denver-based attorney to file a complaint to the Colorado Medical Board and to file a lawsuit in which 16 victims alleged that Jones lied to patients, used his sperm to artificially inseminate them, and produced at least eight children.

Jones eventually agreed to surrender his license. Colorado Medical Board records show that Jones admitted that, if proven, the allegations that he repeatedly substituted his own sperm in place of other donors and fathered children of multiple patients would “constitute a prima facie case of unprofessional conduct.” He continues to fight the civil lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the Colorado legislature held hearings on a bill banning sperm donor deception. Emmons-Boring and her mother flew to Denver to testify. Eve Wiley joined them and later flew to Tallahassee to support a similar reform. Colorado and Florida have now joined Texas in outlawing fertility fraud. 

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Jessica Stavena keeps busy these days by focusing on her full-time job and on her kids, though she still feels like the seams of her own identity have been “ripped apart.” She’s angry that McMorries seems to have faced no consequences after he deceived her mother and violated his patients’ trust. ”I feel like he took advantage of that situation in so many ways as a doctor and from a financial standpoint … It’s not fair what he did, and I want him to be held accountable.”

Stavena moved away from East Texas years ago, but part of what troubles her is that some half siblings she’s getting to know still live in or near Nacogdoches; in the 1980s the city boasted a population of 27,000, and it hasn’t grown much since. Two of her newly-discovered half-siblings knew each other in college, while at least one more regularly saw Dr. McMorries and one of his children for years without knowing their biological ties. Stavena believes more siblings will turn up in the future and worries about how a small community like Nacogdoches might be further impacted. “What if they had dated or married and their children had horrible problems due to incest?” Stavena said. “It’s scary because three of the [legitimate and illegitimate donor] siblings are the same age and some of the half siblings have children the same age.” 

Stavena hopes that by pursuing a complaint, McMorries will be compelled to reveal all his fertility fraud activities, and ultimately give up his license. 

“I want him to have to disclose how often he did this,” Stavena says. “I think the others deserve to know.”

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