Calling his actions unprecedented, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario reprimanded an absent Dr. Norman Barwin on Tuesday for inseminating at least 11 women with his own sperm and mixing up sperm in dozens of other cases.
“Your actions have been beyond reprehensible,” said disciplinary committee chair Dr. Steven Bodley, addressing his remarks to Barwin’s lawyer. “Your patients represent a group who were vulnerable and who placed themselves and their families completely in your trust. You betrayed that trust and by your actions deeply affected individuals and their families and caused irreparable damage that will span generations.”
Barwin was found to have used his own sperm or the wrong sperm when he performed artificial inseminations on between 50 and 100 patients at his Ottawa clinic over a period of decades.
Sixteen children of former patients have now confirmed that Barwin is their biological father, said Rebecca Dixon, one of those biological children, who attended the hearing. Eleven of those children are part of a class-action lawsuit against the disgraced fertility doctor. Numerous other families learned their children were not biologically related to their fathers.
The disciplinary panel heard evidence from 13 cases dating back to 1978 in which children of Barwin’s patients were conceived using his own sperm or the wrong sperm.
The 80-year-old did not show up for either the disciplinary hearing or the reprimand, something that frustrated the chair.
“It seems immensely unfair that you are not here to face the victims of your disgraceful conduct,” said Bodley.
The panel revoked Barwin’s licence and fined him just over $10,000, saying his actions will leave a stain on the profession and that families “will endure the consequences of his abhorrent actions indefinitely.”
Barwin was suspended for two months in 2013 after patients complained that he had mixed up sperm and their children did not have their fathers’ DNA. He voluntarily resigned his licence in 2014 after another former patient made a similar complaint to the college.
Barwin, once known as the “baby god” for his ability to help couples conceive, was both high-profile and widely respected during much of his career in Ottawa, especially for his pioneering work with the trans and LGBTQ communities. He was awarded the Order of Canada, which has since been revoked.
Patients said they initially considered themselves fortunate to have him for a doctor. One patient, whose child is among those conceived using Barwin’s sperm, said she continued to see him for years as a gynecologist.
Another former patient, whose daughter is among those conceived using Barwin’s sperm, said she suspected her daughter looked like her fertility doctor but pushed those thoughts aside because she found it impossible to believe that he would do that.
Carolyn Silver, the college’s legal counsel, called Barwin’s actions unthinkable and unimaginable.
“He engaged in the most horrific violation of his patients’ trust and of their bodies. He took advantage of his patients and their spouses who turned to him for his medical expertise to help them start a family.”
The reprimand came at the end of a day of evidence and impact statements from former patients of Barwin and their families. Barwin did not contest the facts submitted as evidence.
Among those who delivered impact statements was an Ottawa woman who still hasn’t told her teenaged daughter that her father is not her biological father. She said she felt violated when she learned Barwin had inseminated her with a stranger’s sperm after assuring her that he was using her husband’s sperm, even showing her the vial.
“I felt so violated, I felt dirty, almost as though I had been raped,” she said.
Dixon, the 29-year-old Ottawa woman who learned she was not her father’s biological daughter when she was 25, spoke about the impact the revelation had on her and her parents.
“We all cried a lot,” she said.
She waived a publication ban on her name, saying said she wanted to speak publicly about her experience “to make it clear that Dr. Barwin’s actions have had a very real and human impact. I am both evidence and the consequences of these actions.”
Dixon said her identity was “thrown into question” when she learned Barwin, whom she has never met, was her biological father.
“I was in shock. Something inside me shifted. It made me feel like my existence was something to be ashamed of,” she said.
“My life changed that day completely out of the blue. It is embedded into my very DNA and it is something that I will pass on to my children and it will keep coming up for the rest of my life.”
Dixon has now been in contact with 15 others who are also Barwin’s biological children. Some of the half-siblings have become close.
The college has been criticized for failing to take tougher action during earlier investigations into complaints about Barwin. One father of two children who learned that they aren’t related to him, asked Tuesday why it had taken the college so long to realize Barwin was doing harm. The college, he said, failed the families.
That father, the husband of Patient J in the college’s evidence, said they were shown a vial of semen with his name on it and Barwin told him to push the plunger on the syringe which was supposed to contain his semen.
After the hearing, Silver said the college had no evidence that Barwin had used his own sperm to inseminate patients until a class-action lawsuit was launched in 2016. That lawsuit and subsequent media coverage caused the college to reinvestigate Barwin.
The college retained Dr. Edward G. Hughes, an experienced obstetrician and gynecologist who practises fertility medicine, to review the case. He concluded that Barwin’s care fell well below the standard and that his only explanation for how his sperm might have impregnated patients did not make any sense. Barwin said that he had used his own sperm to calibrate a piece of equipment which could have contaminated samples.
Hughes called that implausible and said impregnating at least 11 women with his own sperm could not have been an accident.
Hughes said the harm done to patients and their families was “deep and wide”.
“Dr. Barwin’s actions have resulted in significant pain and suffering that will extend forward through future generations as offspring have their own children and grandchildren.”
Dixon said she was pleased with the college’s actions and said she hopes the attention will make people ask more questions about the way the fertility industry is regulated, managed and monitored.
She said she continues to be challenged by what she now knows about herself, including asking, “What does it mean to be related to somebody who is responsible for creating this harm in other peoples lives?”