A retired fertility specialist from Virginia in the United States allegedly used his own sperm at least 50 times in place of donated sperm and impregnated at least eight women in the state of Indiana in the US.

Donald Cline, a 77-year old doctor pleaded not guilty to two felony charges for obstruction of justice and misleading authorities who were investigating the allegations made by two of the now-adult patients earlier this month.

Blatant breach of ethical physician conduct

Although the various incidents occurred years ago, it would not have come to light if it was not for the efforts of one woman who became curious about her birth origins and decided to have her DNA tested.

"It was unethical, what he did. He was telling his patients one thing and doing another," said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous.

She had unwittingly discovered eight unknown siblings following a commercial DNA test, leading her to investigate further and she then learned that her biological father was in fact her mother's fertility doctor, according to court documents. Cline’s next court hearing is in October.

Although Cline had told his patients he was inseminating them with "fresh sperm" from a medical student or resident, it turns out that in a face-to-face meeting with the women and four other siblings, Cline confessed that he had donated his sperm, not through a bank, about 50 times and "admitted to doing wrong by inseminating the women with his own semen, but felt that he was helping women because they really wanted a baby," according to the court documents.

Lasting impact on patients’ trust of all doctors

This leaves one to wonder what would be the thoughts running through the minds of all former patients of Cline during his time of practice. Would they now seek to voluntarily get their DNA tested or should they opt to live in a sort of denial as the discovery could be deeply disturbing?

Worse still, this latest and blatant malpractice case bears eerie similarities to a case dated back in 1976 when Dr Cecil Jacobson - also a fertility specialist originally from Virginia - was punished for the same crime.

"This kind of thing happens very rarely, and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine doesn't keep numbers on it," said Eleanor Nicoll, a spokeswoman for the society.

Before doctors even decide to treat patients, the Hippocratic oath should serve as a reminder to first do no harm. We read of hardcore criminals and their illegal activity daily but cringe much more when learning that the offender happens to be from the one profession that people literally entrust their lives to.

Losing sight of objectivity: a danger for all doctors

Such behaviour, while clearly atypical, is likely fuelled by feelings of grandiose emerging from a narcissistic and histrionic personality when one loses sight of what counts in meeting the expectations of society. Thus Cline was able to argue that these were his own measures taken in ensuring his clients were satisfied and received what they paid for.

As much as we doctors try each day to stop innocent lives from being taken, it does not make it any more right to create lives in a non-consensual way. The act of deceit feeding into the desperation of hopeful mothers is ethically and legally compromising the values of medical practice.

A distinctive observation here and in regards to all white collar crimes remain that however impressive a pedigree and breed one may be, and despite having trained at top tiered medical schools, residencies, and fellowships these are no guarantees of professionalism and integrity.

One cannot help but be shocked at how easily physicians can get away with practicing far outside the standard of care, up to a point of causing harm be it physical or emotional, especially with so much benefit of doubt encased within the profession. It is sad when doctors as a profession are unable to ground their own practice and need engagement from the legislators in doing so. MIMS


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