SEATTLE – A former UW Medicine physician agreed to surrender his license after a California woman alleges DNA testing revealed he had artificially inseminated her with his own sperm.
Dr. Christopher Herndon allegedly artificially inseminated the patient with his sperm without her knowledge or consent in 2009, while he was practicing reproductive medicine as a clinical fellow at a hospital in California. According to a state Department of Health summary of allegations, the patient had requested the same sperm donor she used for her first child. However, she later learned through DNA testing that her two children did not have the same parental DNA.
The woman signed her second child up on an ancestry tracking service, according to the allegations, and began speaking to a person who registered as a “familiar connection,” and who shared a last name with Herndon. A private investigator hired by the woman determined the person was Herndon’s sibling, the allegations state.
The patient provided the Washington Medical Commission with civil case and medical records in June, before the commission determined Herndon should surrender his license.
“This was a purposeful violation of the trust placed in [Herndon] as a physician which had a profound impact on the patient and the patient’s family,” read a medical commission stipulation to informal disposition.
Herndon, who began working as a physician at UW Medicine’s Center Reproductive Care clinic in 2017 and as an assistant professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology, resigned in September. He is not eligible to renew or reactivate his Washington license.
UW Medicine spokesperson Susan Gregg said the medical centers’ “safeguards” should prevent an incident like the one alleged by Herndon’s patient. Gregg said there is currently “no evidence of impropriety at UW Medicine.”
UW Medicine proactively reached out to Herndon’s patients based upon their visit with him and is offering free DNA testing to intrauterine insemination patients.
“In addition, we are reviewing our safeguards and procedures to continue to ensure the highest level of specimen security,” Gregg said in an emailed statement. “Of the numerous safeguards we employ, we include multiple identity checks, careful chain of custody practices, and separate labs for egg and sperm specimens. We do not believe that our patients were at risk.”
Seattle resident and UW Medicine patient Ashlee Drake Berry said she was “shocked” when she received an email about Herndon from the health care system last week. Her experience with the reproductive care doctor was limited to an initial consultation and some lab work around early 2020, when she was hoping to get pregnant with her second child.
“There was something that didn’t feel quite right,” the 37-year-old said. Soon after the initial consultation, Drake Berry decided to move forward with a doctor outside UW Medicine. “I felt a lot of relief and validation for switching.”
She’s since given birth to her second and third kids, who were both conceived via in vitro fertilization, but because she didn’t end up getting care through UW Medicine, she’s not planning to take the hospital up on its offer for free DNA testing.
“But if I had gone through fertility with them and done that type of testing, I would definitely consider it,” she said.
UW patients with questions or concerns about Herndon can call a dedicated phone line at 206-520-8755.
The allegations against Herndon reflect a troubling concern for fertility care patients. In October, an Idaho woman filed a lawsuit against a now-retired OB-GYN in Spokane, alleging he had used his own sperm to impregnate her. In that case, the woman claimed she also learned of her child’s parentage through an ancestry tracking service.
The disturbing practice, referred to as “fertility fraud,” has gained attention in the last several years as a growing number of people have discovered their genetic history is not what they thought. But in Washington state, and in most of the country, there are no laws specifically banning doctors from secretly using their own sperm during artificial insemination procedures.
A state bill to create a criminal charge around the practice, among other regulatory measures, has died in the past four legislative sessions.
Donor Deceived, one website started by Woodinville resident Traci Portugal that tracks these cases, has counted at least 39 doctors in the U.S., spanning nearly 350 cases. A New York Times story last year cited more than 50 across the country.