The best health stories are about empathy, about seeing clearly that all that separates you, the reader, from the story’s subject is an accident or genetics. Alison Motluk’s “Uncommon Ancestry” in Hazlitt is gripping not only because of the inherent drama of its premise—that there are many existing cases where fertility doctors impregnated patients with their own sperm against the patients’ will—but because of how, in a story about the frightening misuse of technology, her focus remains so entirely human.
The story starts off like one you’ve heard before, but quickly veers into uncharted territory. It begins with Kat Palmer, who found out as a teenager that she was conceived in a fertility clinic. When she contacted the doctor who had performed the procedure in the hopes of finding her biological father, she hit a pair of roadblocks: there were no records related to her conception; and none of the clinic’s affiliated sperm banks had recorded transactions with it at that time. She was contacted by a distant cousin after registering on a DNA site, and they discovered by chance that he was related to Palmer’s mother’s fertility doctor. A few awkward phone calls and a DNA test later, she discovered that unbeknownst to anyone in her family, the doctor was her biological father.
The doctor, Bernard Norman Barwin, has been in the news lately. In November, several of his former patients launched a class-action lawsuit against him for using his own sperm to inseminate them. But he’s not the only one. The piece mentions several doctors, and catalogues all kinds of discoveries: a woman born of IVF who has a hereditary disease that isn’t in the medical history of either of her parents, a surrogate mother whose child is born with a blood type that isn’t hers or her chosen sperm donor’s, a woman who finds genetic half-siblings on a DNA-mapping site, a man who was struck by how much the children of his mother’s fertility doctor looked like him.
Motluk is simple but precise in her language as she elucidates the obvious concerns—doctors acting without their patients’ consent, the health risks that come from having incorrect information about your child’s medical history—but also the issues you might not think about. One woman profiled talks explicitly about requesting a DNA test for her teenage son’s future romantic partners. Without knowing who his family is, he’ll have to make a conscious effort to avoid incest. It’s the inclusion of these kinds of details that makes that empathic connection. Motluk’s writing details pieces of information that are life altering, and then details the adjustments that must be made, whether they’re massive emotional shifts or small changes in habit.
The piece is sometimes horrifying, but also straightforward. There are no attempts at shocking or disgusting readers, just explanations to help them understand. One of Motluk’s primary interview subjects had been reluctant to come forward; she and her half-siblings had feared their stories would be sensationalized. (Another one of the piece’s precise and exquisitely presented details lies in the fact that people, just by speaking publicly, expose their half-siblings, whose identities become inseparable from the tangled branches of their family trees.) Sensationalism is certainly a danger in telling this story. The topic plays on a lot of fears about abuse of women’s bodies and dangerous technological misuse. I even found it difficult to recount the essay’s contents to a friend without getting dramatic, widening my eyes, and using the word crazy. That’s why Motluk’s restraint is so impressive; she faces this story with acuity and insight. It’s clear-eyed and honest, but always human.