He's an IVF 'pioneer.' Now he's accused of secretly using his own sperm

Picture: Sigrid Gombert/Science Photo LIB/ SGM / Science Photo Library via AFP

Picture: Sigrid Gombert/Science Photo LIB/ SGM / Science Photo Library via AFP

Published Dec 15, 2023


When Carolyn Bester took a pair of at-home DNA tests, she was curious about whether she could find family members of the anonymous donor whose sperm led to her conception 43 years ago. The results horrified her.

The unknown family she discovered was related to Merle Berger, a renowned IVF doctor who founded one of the nation's largest fertility clinics in Boston and helped her mother, Sarah Depoian, become pregnant.

Then, Bester put the pieces of the puzzle together and realised the truth, according to a new lawsuit: Berger was her biological father and had secretly inseminated Depoian in 1980 under the guise that the sperm was from someone "who resembled her husband, who did not know her, and whom she did not know."

"It was really, really shocking and horrible to find that out—that's your life's story and that's the story of how you were created," Bester, 42, said at a news conference.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts alleges that Berger, a former professor at Harvard Medical School, had inseminated Depoian without her consent to perform the procedure with his own sperm. The artificial insemination led to a successful pregnancy for Depoian, and Bester was born in January 1981.

"This is an extreme violation. I am still struggling to process it," Depoian, a 73-year-old Maine resident, said in a statement. "I trusted Dr Berger fully. We thought he would act responsibly and ethically. I will never fully recover from his violation of me."

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Adam Wolf, Depoian's attorney, said Berger knew what he was doing when he allegedly inseminated Depoian with his sperm more than four decades ago, despite telling her that it was from an anonymous donor. Depoian is seeking "damages in an amount sufficient to compensate her for her injuries," according to the complaint.

"Some people call this horrific act medical rape, but regardless of what you call it, Dr Berger's heinous and intentional misconduct is unethical, unacceptable, and unlawful," Wolf said in a statement.

Ian Pinta, Berger's attorney, denied the claims in a statement to The Washington Post, noting that Berger, now 82, was "a pioneer in the medical fertility field who, in 50 years of practice, helped thousands of families fulfil their dreams of having a child". Berger retired in 2020.

"The allegations concern events from over 40 years ago, in the early days of artificial insemination," Pinta said. "The allegations, which have changed repeatedly in the six months since the plaintiff's attorney first contacted Dr Berger, have no legal or factual merit and will be disproven in court."

A spokesperson for Harvard Medical School noted to The Post that while Berger was academically affiliated with the medical school, his primary employment was at various Harvard-affiliated hospitals, which the university does not own or operate.

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A Boston IVF Fertility Clinic spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The fertility centre released a statement to WCVB, an ABC affiliate in Boston, specifying that the lawsuit deals with an allegation that happened before Berger's employment and before the company existed.

"We wish to highlight that the field of reproductive endocrinology and infertility is much different than it was decades ago, and the safety measures and safeguards currently in place would make such allegations virtually impossible nowadays," the clinic said. "Patients should be assured that our field continues to uphold the most rigorous ethical and medical standards."

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions in recent years involving women who discovered that they were secretly inseminated by their fertility doctors. Several cases have resulted in fertility doctors owing patients millions of dollars for impregnating them through artificial insemination after saying the sperm was from an anonymous donor.

Many of the stories in recent years have come as a result of people taking at-home DNA tests, such as the ones from Ancestry.com and 23andMe, to learn more about their family history.

When Depoian and her husband learned they could not conceive with Depoian's husband's sperm, the couple went to Berger's Massachusetts office in 1980 seeking assistance, the lawsuit says. Berger advised that he could perform an intrauterine insemination, when sperm is directly placed into the uterus via a catheter.

After promising that the sperm would be from a medical resident who resembled her husband and whom she didn't know, Depoian agreed to begin the process.

Unbeknownst to Depoian, the fertility doctor knew whose sperm he'd be using for the procedure, according to the lawsuit.

"Dr Berger's misconduct was not a mistake," the lawsuit says, describing in graphic detail how Berger allegedly inserted his own sperm into Depoian's body "all while knowing that she did not consent to his sperm entering her body."

From then on, Berger's career took off when he co-founded Boston IVF in 1986. More than 90,000 babies have been born thanks to the assistance of Boston IVF, according to its website.

"Dr Berger's career is essentially the history of IVF in America," the fertility centre wrote in a 2020 announcement that has since been taken down from the site.

More than 40 years after she was born, Bester was excited to learn more about her family history and ordered DNA kits from Ancestry.com and 23andMe late last year. The family history reports she got back at the beginning of the year did not give a direct result for her biological father, so Bester began reaching out to the relatives listed in the findings to learn more.

Then came a disturbing turn.

She spoke with two people who said they were a granddaughter and a second cousin of Berger, according to the lawsuit. After that, she alleged that Berger was her biological father.

"To say I experienced shock when I figured this out would be an extreme understatement," Bester, who lives in New Jersey, said at a news conference.

Bester shared the DNA results with her mother, who had not known the identity of the sperm donor. Shortly after the discovery, Depoian contacted Berger through her legal counsel.

"In response, Dr Berger did not deny that he inserted his own sperm into Ms Depoian's body, contrary to her wishes and his promises," the lawsuit says. "He also did not deny that he covered up his misconduct by not telling her about his actions after he performed the IUI."

Depoian told reporters Wednesday that she felt like the "victim of assault" and is concerned that the fertility doctor "may have violated other unsuspecting patients." Bester said that she was having a hard time coming to terms with the manner in which she was conceived and with the donor, who is allegedly responsible.

"My mom put her trust in Dr Berger as a medical professional during one of the most vulnerable times in her life," she said. "He had all the power, and she had none."

Bester added, "It feels like reality has shifted".

The Washington Post