A doctor in Eastern Idaho is accused of secretly using his own sperm to fertilize a patient in 1980. Almost 40 years later, the baby is a grown woman who says she just learned the truth from a mail-in DNA test.
She and her parents are suing the doctor, who is now retired. The lawsuit says:
Sally Ashby and Howard Fowler were having trouble conceiving in 1979. They went to Dr. Gerald Mortimer, who ran an OB/GYN practice in Idaho Falls, looking for help.
The problem, Mortimer told them, was that Ashby had a tipped uterus and Fowler’s sperm count and motility were low.
He recommended artificial insemination — using a mix of semen from Fowler and an anonymous donor, chosen by the couple based on whatever characteristics they desired.
They chose a donor who was in college and who looked like Fowler — over 6 feet tall with brown hair and blue eyes.
Mortimer told the couple he had a donor in mind, and he performed the artificial insemination procedure three times a month on Ashby, throughout the summer of 1980.
The couple welcomed a daughter, named Kelli, in May 1981. Mortimer delivered the baby.
Ashby continued to see Mortimer as her OB/GYN for several years. The couple eventually decided to move to Washington — after adding a son to their family without medical assistance.
“Dr. Mortimer cried when Ms. Ashby informed him they were moving,” the lawsuit says. “Dr. Mortimer knew Kelli ... was his biological daughter but did not disclose this to Ms. Ashby or Mr. Fowler.”
Three decades later, Kelli Rowlette was a grown woman. Like many other Americans curious about their lineage, Rowlette sent in a DNA sample for analysis on Ancestry.com.
She got a notification last July that her DNA sample had a match: a parent-child relationship with Mortimer.
Rowlette had no idea who Mortimer was. She didn’t know the story of how she was conceived. She assumed Ancestry.com was just plain wrong and mentioned to her mother how disappointed she was in the service.
“Mrs. Rowlette gave Ms. Ashby access to the results from Ancestry.com,” the lawsuit says. “When Ms. Ashby was alone, she accessed the account to investigate further. When Ms. Ashby saw Dr. Mortimer’s name, she was devastated.”
Ashby called Fowler, now her ex-husband, and filled him in. Both of them were devastated, and they spent “several months” trying to decide whether to tell their daughter who Mortimer was, the lawsuit says.
The parents “struggled to cope with their own anguish, and had difficulty contemplating the torment the discovery would cause their daughter when and if she found out,” the lawsuit says.
Last fall, the choice was made for them. Rowlette was at her father’s house helping him clean out old papers. She found her birth certificate — and on it, Dr. Mortimer’s signature.
Rowlette and her parents, who all live in Eastern Washington, filed their lawsuit last week. They accuse Mortimer of medical negligence, fraud, battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, breach of contract and failure to get informed consent. They also allege Mortimer violated consumer protection laws.
The family has been “suffering immeasurably” in the past several months, the lawsuit says.
They also named Mortimer’s wife and Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates of Idaho Falls — Mortimer’s former practice — as defendants.
The practice’s lawyer, J. Michael Wheiler of Thomsen Holman Wheiler in Idaho Falls, told the Statesman on Wednesday that Mortimer had retired years ago. The health care providers who currently work there joined the practice after 1980, he said.
The claims made in the lawsuit “came as a shock to them as well,” Wheiler said.
The Idaho Board of Medicine has licensed Mortimer since 1977, with no disciplinary actions on his record. He has an active license, set to expire in June, but is listed as retired from his practice.
The board hadn’t heard from any other former patients of Mortimer as of Wednesday, according to Executive Director Anne Lawler. Lawler said she believes this is a first-of-its-kind complaint against an Idaho doctor.
Mortimer’s lawyer in Boise did not respond to a message Wednesday from the Statesman. The voicemail box for Mortimer’s phone number listed on his state license was full Wednesday, and he and his wife did not respond to a Facebook message.
A lawyer for Rowlette and her parents sent the Statesman an email, saying the family “made the difficult decision to allow their personal grief to become public” by pursuing a legal case.
“Ultimately this decision was made for the purpose of holding the responsible parties accountable for a grievous and damaging violation of trust,” wrote Shea C. Meehan of Walker Heye Meehan Eisinger in Richland, Washington. “While the family understands the public’s interest in their story, they ask that their privacy be respected as they focus on the difficult process of healing from this trauma.”
Meehan did not say whether his clients plan to drop the practice from their lawsuit.
In addition to his career in medicine, Mortimer has been a leader in Eastern Idaho for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He held stake bishop and counselor roles, among many others, and he was president of the Cebu City Philippines Temple from 2010 to 2012, according to a church news release.
It’s not the first time a physician has been accused of using his own sperm on a patient without her knowledge.
Cecil B. Jacobson was convicted in the early 1990s of doing just that.
Prosecutors claimed the Virginia doctor used his own sperm to create as many as 75 babies. A jury ultimately decided he was guilty based on DNA tests for 15 of his patients’ children.
Jacobson’s lawyers argued that his motives were pure.
“If Cecil made any mistakes, it was in losing his objectivity and trying so hard to get patients pregnant,” one defense attorney said, according to the New York Times.
More recently, a Canadian physician has been accused of using his own sperm to impregnate patients who were trying to conceive. A lawsuit against the doctor, Norman Barwin, said a DNA test showed a paternal half-sister relationship between the daughters of two former patients.
“When I first found out, I felt disassociated from my body and my face,” one couple’s daughter said, according to the CBC/Radio Canada. “When I’d look in the mirror, I felt like suddenly it wasn’t my face. Features about myself that I’d always liked, or just thought of as my own seemed like they might belong to someone else, and I didn’t know who that was.”
Courthouse News first reported Friday on the lawsuit against Mortimer.