When Arianna Huhn experienced complications with her first pregnancy, she signed up for a clinical trial, one that required her to submit family DNA samples for research. Her parents, Gail and George Fogelman, agreed. But shortly after, they asked her to jump on a call with them, alone, without her husband.
On the phone, Huhn noticed that her dad was choked up and unable to speak. Her mother took the lead. “There’s something that we have been hiding from you,” she said. “Your dad is not your genetic father.”
In the late ‘70s, Huhn’s parents had experienced issues when they were trying to conceive. So they opted for artificial insemination, as suggested by their gynecologist and fertility doctor. Dr. Benjamin Fiorica told them that he would perform the procedure using a mix of George’s sperm and sperm donated by a medical intern.
The Fogelmans wanted their child to share a resemblance with their family and requested that the intern be either Jewish or Italian. Fiorica agreed to this stipulation. But he told the Fogelmans to keep the artificial insemination a secret — to hide it from their child. He claimed it would just “cause problems” and that it wouldn’t be “good for the child to know.”
Revealing this lifelong deceit to their daughter, the Fogelmans were braced for shock, anger, or even tears. Instead, Huhn began laughing hysterically.
Learning she was someone else’s daughter wasn’t a betrayal but a relief. “I don’t know if vindicating is the right word,” she tells me. “But I had never felt a connection with my dad.”
The differences between them had felt stark throughout her childhood. Her dad was the quintessential extrovert and she, the quintessential introvert. A musician who had dedicated his life to the craft, he tried hard to inculcate the same love in Huhn. But it never quite clicked with Huhn, who says she couldn’t carry a tune. Instead, Huhn found herself interested in learning about the world, studying anthropology and political science in college and later pursuing a PhD at Boston University. Eventually, she became a professor of sociocultural anthropology at California State University, San Bernardino.
So, who was her father? Huhn began digging into her genetic background. She and her mother combed through photos of medical interns who had worked at the now-defunct Fifth Avenue Birth Center around 1980, the year that Huhn was conceived. Huhn and her mother emailed back and forth, debating whether this or that intern resembled Huhn.
Guessing based purely on looks was a shot in the dark. Huhn did not feel confident enough to reach out to anyone just yet. She considered taking a DNA test. Her grandmother had taken one recently and claimed she had found “three thousand cousins.” Who knows what I’m going to find, thought Huhn, excited. She ordered a test kit from AncestryDNA, spat into the tube, and mailed in her sample.
When the results arrived, the service connected her with a third cousin on her paternal side. The two chatted a little, but the conversation produced no additional clues as to who her biological father could be.
The search became an obsession for both Huhn and her husband. Seated next to each other, the two would open their laptops and look up everyone that Ancestry connected with Huhn, scrutinizing each new match that popped up on her profile. They used Facebook to build out an extended list, scouring each match’s list of friends to see who they could be related to.
At this stage, it was a “fun adventure,” something that Huhn said felt like “our own personal mystery novel.” After extensive research, the couple was able to draw something akin to a family tree and trace Huhn’s roots to a village in Sicily and to a familiar last name: Fiorica.
The name rang a bell. Could this Fiorica be Dr. Benjamin Fiorica, the man who had performed the insemination procedure on her mother and delivered Huhn as a baby? She contacted the doctor. Fiorica chalked it up to a coincidence. “I had a vasectomy years before. Good luck in your search!” he said to her on the phone.
A few months later, AncestryDNA came up with a new match — someone who was genetically an aunt on her father’s side. Her name was Rosemary, and she was Benjamin Fiorica’s sister.
Huhn ran upstairs, woke up her husband, and shoved her phone in his half-asleep face. “Look, look it’s him!” she said.
This was the smoking gun. She wrote another email to Dr. Fiorica, attaching a screenshot of the results along with it. He caved.
“I must admit that I am your father,” Fiorica said in an email. “I am truly sorry that I did not admit this earlier.”
Huhn’s case isn’t the first of its kind — not even close. As genetic testing became more accessible to the general public through companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, a flood of doctor-donor insemination cases emerged.
In 2018, NPR published a story about a case where a doctor was supposed to have inseminated a woman with a “sperm cocktail,” 85 percent of which consisted of the patient’s husband’s sperm and 15 percent of which consisted of the sperm from an over six-foot-tall college student who resembled her husband. Years later, DNA test results showed that the doctor had lied and swapped in his own sperm instead. In 2019, there were reports of a Dutch doctor who had been accused of using his own material to father up to 200 children. In December 2020, the New York Post published a story about a revered family doctor in Detroit, Michigan, who’d done the same over four decades, all without the knowledge of many of his patients.
These cases raise broader questions about ethics and consent in the practice of reproductive medicine as well as questions about what donor anonymity means — or if it can exist at all — in the era of 23andMe and AncestryDNA.
There is no specific law against fertility fraud at the federal level in the United States, and at the state level, it often remains unlegislated. The absence of criminality against fertility fraud reflects the broader lack of regulation in reproductive medicine in the US. The result has been many horror stories: a serial sperm donor who fathered over a hundred children, for instance, or an embryo mix-up at an IVF clinic in Los Angeles, California, that led to two couples becoming pregnant with the other’s baby. In Germany, a donor may not father over 15 children, and the United Kingdom caps it at 10 families. In the United States, there are no legal limits on how many times a donor can donate sperm.
But among all these cases, fertility fraud involving doctor-donor daddies stands out: crucially, they involve a breach of trust in the doctor-patient relationship. Some litigants have even likened these incidents to “medical rape” in court filings since they involve the doctor literally inserting material into their patient without their informed consent.
Huhn was appalled to discover that her biological father was not an anonymous medical resident but her mother’s own fertility doctor and gynecologist. The revelation left her feeling “like a science experiment.” She couldn’t let go of the feeling that she was “the product of something unethical or a mistake.” (Fiorica did not respond to requests for comment.)
She didn’t know what to do with the knowledge. It disgusted her. Years later, she still hesitates to use the term “medically-induced rape,” but she says there is no doubt that her mother had been violated.
“Knowing what he did to my mom makes me think that he might be a shitty person,” said Huhn. But half her DNA came from this man. Rational or not, she couldn’t help but wonder, Does that mean I’m genetically a shitty person, too?
But Huhn did not want to sue Fiorica. She felt if she did so, she would be suing him for bringing her into existence and, in a way, negating the validity of her life. “And that would be an existential crisis,” she said.
Her mother, Gail Fogelman, felt similarly at first. “If I sued him, it would be saying something was wrong and I had regrets,” she said in an interview in January. “You don’t sue, unless you’re injured, right? I’m not injured.” She pointed out that her daughter has a good life, a respectable job, and a family that adores her. She had felt conflicted then; but by May, she told me in another interview that she is now considering suing.
Huhn felt conflicted, too. She was furious with Fiorica, but she also tried to see things from his point of view, even putting on her anthropologist’s hat to analyze his actions within the social and cultural context of the time she was conceived. Reproductive medicine was in its infancy during the ‘70s and ‘80s — maybe Fiorica genuinely believed he was helping the Fogelmans. They needed sperm; he provided it. Maybe he thought his actions were justified?
But beyond that, Huhn craved a relationship with her biological father.
Throughout her life, she had noticed inexplicable bonds between people who share a genetic connection — it felt important to her to explore that connection. She wanted something more than an origin story in a petri dish.
Huhn found solace and community in a Facebook group called “Donor Deceived,” started in 2019 by Eve Wiley, also a victim of fertility fraud. There were many preexisting online communities for donor-conceived children and their parents, but Wiley felt children of doctor-donors and their parents needed a space of their own. The group now has 113 members who use it to share their conception stories as well as their thoughts and feelings on related news stories or pop culture depictions of doctor-donor fertility fraud.
In the Facebook group, Huhn found a reflection of her own inner conflict — each member had their own messy and complicated response to learning their birth story.
“I can’t imagine being a woman and finding that out,” said Mark Hansen, whose parental discovery in 2013 still takes a toll on him today. “The bad thing from my perspective is the fact that I’m the result of [my mother] being violated. That messed me up. I have wrestled with that for a long time.”
Unlike Huhn and her mother, other victims of fertility fraud have filed lawsuits against doctor-donors. The 23andMe test Beverly Willhelm received for Christmas led her to file a lawsuit against Dr. Phillip Milgram, her fertility doctor 20 years prior, accusing him of battery and fraud. Meanwhile, Eve Wiley, who created Donor Deceived, teamed up with Jody Madeira, a law professor at Indiana University, to push for states to pass legislation against fertility fraud.
According to Madeira, victims who file civil suits for medical malpractice and fraud often end up settling out of court and signing lengthy nondisclosure agreements. And, depending on the state and its definition of consent, doctors often cannot be prosecuted for rape or sexual assault because their patients technically “consented” to the insemination procedure. Wiley and Madeira’s proposed legislation criminalizes fertility fraud and allows all parties harmed, including donor-deceived children and the victim’s partner, to be able to file a civil suit against the doctor involved. As of 2022, Wiley and Madeira have seen their legislation adopted in Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Texas, Colorado, and Kentucky. In Indiana, the new law was passed after a particularly egregious case came to light — one in which a fertility doctor was eventually found to have at least 94 biological children. (The Donald Cline case is the subject of the popular Netflix documentary Our Father.)
Wiley’s activism gives her access to legislators, and once they start working together, she is also able to inform and educate them about the industry more broadly. Hearing about sperm makes people uneasy. “But also it’s a psychoeducation. It’s the foot in the door to get these guys to realize that we have a larger problem here,” Wiley says.
In the US, fertility clinics and sperm banks receive suggested operative guidelines from professional organizations like the American Society for Reproductive Medicine or the Society of Assisted Reproductive Technology, but they do not have to answer to any government agency. Unsurprisingly, there is little to no regulation at the state level. At the federal level, the sole law that exists is the Fertility Clinic Success Rate and Certification Act of 1992. Congress passed this statute after receiving complaints about fertility clinics exaggerating their success rates.
The first part of the statute asks fertility clinics to inform the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention how often their patients get pregnant. However, as Dov Fox, a professor of law at the University of San Diego, writes in his book, Birth Rights and Wrongs, “There’s no carrot for disclosing these results, or any stick for refusing or lying.” Because clinics do not face repercussions for self-reporting inaccurate data, there are serious questions about how many clinics are following the few guidelines that do exist.
The 1992 statute also instructs states to create certification programs that establish standards for fertility clinics, mandating reporting as well as the screening of human donors and tissues for infectious diseases. But, according to Fox, the fertility industry lobbied Congress to adopt language that would hobble regulation efforts, forbidding the government from “establish[ing] any standard, regulation, or requirement, which has the effect of exercising supervision or control over the practice of medicine in assisted reproductive technology programs.” In other words, neither the federal government nor individual states can, in practice, exercise any authority over how fertility clinics and sperm banks conduct business.
In the US, the first fertility clinics were private enterprises without the support of public funding, and this trend has continued to date. As a result, Fox writes, “reproductive technologies [have developed] unimpeded by government oversight, in the private sphere of for-profit clinics that function less as medical practices than trade businesses.”
Huhn didn’t think that she was going to find closure in legal action. But she found herself wondering if the DNA she shared with Fiorica meant something — and whether they could forge a connection based on that.
She took the first step and reached out. He replied and the two began exchanging emails once every six months or so. Finally, Fiorica, who is now retired and lives in New York, suggested that they meet up. In summer 2017, when Huhn was scheduled to travel to a conference in Washington, DC, she let him know. By chance, it turned out that Fiorica was going to be in Virginia for a golf retreat around the same time.
Huhn arrived well in advance and stopped by a bookstore to pass the time. Fiorica found her sitting on the curb. “Are you Arianna?” he asked. Huhn nodded. They shared a brief hug before going into the restaurant together.
They sat down. The mood was awkward but not unpleasant.
“So, what do you want to know?” Fiorica asked.
“I don’t know. You tell me!” she shot back.
Fiorica started to rattle off his educational background and CV. He had attended St. John Fisher College, where he majored in biology. Later, he attended the Medical College of Wisconsin, graduating in 1968. His specialization was in obstetrics and gynecology.
That’s not the information I wanted, Huhn thought to herself. She wanted to learn more about him: what kind of a person he was and what his interests were. She was cognizant of the fact that this might be her only opportunity to meet her biological father, and so, despite her annoyance at his answers, she tried to be as present as possible.
Fiorica did not ask Huhn too many questions, but he did ask about her kids — their names and dates of birth.
“Is it okay if I send them Christmas presents?”
Huhn was a little taken aback. “I guess? Sure?”
She asked him why he had used his own sperm to inseminate her mother, rather than that of a medical intern as he had claimed. Dr. Fiorica said that he and another doctor regularly donated sperm for each other’s patients. (The Verge attempted to contact the other doctor but wasn’t able to reach him). He added that Huhn’s mother was the only patient that he had inseminated using his own sperm.
“She said she wanted someone Jewish or Italian,” he said. “And in that moment, I knew it was going to be me.”
Huhn recognized that Fiorica and her mother were acquainted with each other outside of their doctor-patient relationship. The Fogelmans used to run a custom framing business and had mounted some of Fiorica’s family photos. Maybe Dr. Fiorica had a crush on my mother? Huhn thought. But she decided against probing deeper in an attempt to keep the conversation light.
When the server brought their check at the end of the meal, Huhn reached out to pay for it. Dr. Fiorica grabbed it before she could. “How can I take my own daughter to lunch and let her pay for it?”
The gesture and the accompanying comment injected a sour note into the meeting. Fuck you, she thought. You can’t call me your daughter and be all nice and pretend that we’re on some father-daughter afternoon lunch date.
But still, lunch hadn’t been a total disaster. “I mean, you know, meeting a stranger is always awkward,” Huhn tells me.
Maybe that was the part that bothered her — despite being her biological father, he was unmistakably a stranger. She had not felt a spark of recognition or the feeling of connection she had hoped for. But he had been willing to meet her, and they had left on civil terms even if it had been a little weird. Maybe there was potential here. Maybe all they needed was time.
Portrayals of fertility fraud garner attention partly because of the staggering numbers involved: a physician in Colorado with 17 children; one in the Netherlands with at least 49; and the doctor in Indiana whose 94 confirmed cases of fertility fraud inspired legal reform at the state level and became the subject of Our Father. The documentary launched in mid-May and continued to rank in the Top 10 on Netflix for some weeks.
Huhn’s mother, Gail Fogelman, was one of the many viewers deeply affected by the documentary. She noticed stark similarities between Cline’s behavior and Fiorica’s: instructing patients to keep the artificial insemination a secret from their children and asking them to come in at odd hours for the procedure when no nurses were present. “I started crying in the first scene and I cried throughout the movie,” said Fogelman, adding, “It broke my heart… I can’t just let this go. I have to do something.” When she first spoke to me in January, she said she didn’t want to sue Fiorica; after watching Our Father, she contacted Wiley and Madeira to get involved with their work. (Huhn told me most recently that she was proud of her mother’s newfound activism and that she would support her — even if it meant a lawsuit.)
Not everyone who is watching Our Father has a personal connection at stake, but they are drawn in regardless. Fertility fraud rivets audiences because it channels the mysterious allure of genetic inheritance, crossing it with the perverse power relations between a doctor and their patient. Conception — so often an intimate act — is made impersonal and medicalized in the context of the fertility clinic, and then made intimate again through the abuse of the doctor-patient relationship.
Every child of fertility fraud is a baby who was desperately and deeply wanted by their parents. The exploitation of that desire is devastating; the fact that the body becomes evidence of the transgression is all the worse.
Only a handful of the 94 children in Our Father consented to be interviewed on camera, but their physical resemblance is striking. One expresses her discomfort about their shared features, pointing out their “Aryan” blond hair and blue eyes and speculating that their biological father might have had ideological motivations. (Ironically, many of the children interviewed believed they had inherited health problems from their biological father and one speculated that his sperm would not have been accepted in a clinic setting.)
The science of genetics has always had an uneasy relationship with politics. Science too easily degrades into race science — and genetics into eugenics. The advent of cheap, accessible consumer DNA testing inevitably ushered in the use of 23andMe and other services to “prove” racial purity. (Although if tests show unwanted results, white nationalist forum users are quick to delegitimize the tests and the companies.)
The naive and the Nazi alike spit into tubes to find themselves. What that even means is often opaque; what they discover is often unwanted.
Genes matter, of course — eyes, hair, blood type, heritable illness. But, in the end, Huhn, who had never felt a connection to the father who had raised her, didn’t feel much of a connection to her biological father, either.
Seeing Fiorica had not inspired an immediate relationship for Huhn. She hadn’t felt like running into his arms and calling him “Dad.” Their lunch had not been too different from an encounter between two strangers, a little awkward, yes, but overall polite. And Huhn wanted to give Fiorica the benefit of the doubt.
“I really think he’s struggling with it, too — not knowing what to do with the fact that I exist and that I know who he is,” Huhn says.
Huhn contacted Fiorica once again in February 2018. She was visiting her mom in San Diego, California, and asked if he was in town since his children — the ones he had raised — lived in the area. He could get to know his grandkids if that’s what he wanted. “Maybe we could meet at the park,” her email read. No response from Dr. Fiorica.
She tried again. No response.
Now a parent herself, Huhn could not imagine being in Fiorica’s shoes and not caring about his biological child. “If I contributed genetic material to any kid, I would want to know about their well-being,” she says.
Itching for something more, Huhn decided to reach out to Fiorica’s son. Fiorica had specifically requested that Huhn not reach out to any of the children he had raised with his wife. But Huhn went ahead with it anyway. She thought that it wasn’t fair for Fiorica to make the choice on their behalf. Didn’t they have a right to know she existed? Wasn’t it their choice to decide whether to meet her?
Huhn wonders now if she made a mistake.
Huhn contacted the son in 2018 using her work email address. She clarified in the email that this was not a hoax or a scam and hoped that being a university professor made her seem credible. She informed him about how they were related and said her presence need not be a deep, dark secret. She added that a generation of donor-conceived people is discovering their origins thanks to direct-to-consumer genetic testing and that her desire to contact him came primarily from curiosity about her genetic background.
“I was always somewhat of an oddball in my family, so it’s fun to think I might have surprising things in common with those on the other side of my genetic self,” Huhn wrote. “It’s not that I expect you to be my brother now... I have a family and am not looking to crash yours.” She ended the email by reminding him that she wasn’t mentally or emotionally unstable — this could all be okay, really — and invited him for coffee or a playdate at the park with their respective children.
Like father, like son, the other Fiorica never wrote back.