A former professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of one of the nation’s largest fertility clinics is being accused of secretly impregnating a patient in 1980 after promising the sperm would come from an anonymous donor, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Sarah Depoian, 73, said she and her husband first went to Dr. Merle Berger, now-retired professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology, in 1979 to discuss intrauterine insemination. Depoian said Berger told her the sperm would come from an anonymous donor “who resembled her husband, who did not know her, and whom she did not know,” according to the lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.
The artificial insemination that Berger performed resulted in a successful pregnancy, and Depoian’s daughter, Carolyn Bester, was born in January 1981. Earlier this year, Bester conducted a home DNA test and discovered Berger was her biological father, according to the lawsuit.
A spokesperson for Harvard Medical School said Berger was academically affiliated with the medical school, but his primary place of employment was at various Harvard-affiliated hospitals, which the school does not own or operate.
Adam Wolf, a lawyer representing Depoian, said Berger clearly knew that what he was doing was wrong.
“Some people call this horrific act medical rape, but regardless of what you call it, Dr. Berger’s heinous and intentional misconduct is unethical, unacceptable and unlawful," Wolf told reporters Wednesday.
Ian Pinta, a lawyer representing Berger, described him as a pioneer in the medical fertility field who in 50 years of practice helped thousands of families fulfill their dreams of having a child.
“The allegations concern events from over 40 years ago, in the early days of artificial insemination,” Pinta said in a written statement. “The allegations, which have changed repeatedly in the six months since the plaintiff’s attorney first contacted Dr. Berger, have no legal or factual merit, and will be disproven in court.”
A spokesperson for Boston IVF Fertility Clinic, which Berger helped found, said the situation cited in the lawsuit occurred before Berger’s employment at the clinic and before the company even existed.
“The field of reproductive endocrinology and infertility is much different than it was decades ago, and the safety measures and safeguards currently in place would make such allegations virtually impossible nowadays,” the company said in a written statement.
In the lawsuit, Depoian is in part seeking “damages in an amount sufficient to compensate her for her injuries.”
“We fully trusted Dr. Berger. He was a medical professional. It's hard to imagine not trusting your own doctor," said Depoian, who lives in Maine. “We never dreamt he would abuse his position of trust and perpetrate this extreme violation. I am struggling to process it."
Bester, 42, said she received DNA results from Ancestry.com and 23andMe as she explored her history earlier this year.
The results didn't show a direct match to Berger but identified a granddaughter and second cousin of his. Bester said she spoke to one of the relatives and started to piece together the puzzle.
“To say I was shocked when I figured this out would be an extreme understatement. It feels like reality has shifted," said Bester, who lives in New Jersey. “My mom put her trust in Dr. Berger as a medical professional during one of the most vulnerable times in her life. He had all the power and she had none."
Bester said she told her mother, who then contacted Berger through a lawyer. The lawyer said Berger didn't deny that Depoian had consented only to an insemination with the sperm of a donor who did not know her and whom she did not know, Bester said.
There have been other instances of fertility doctors being accused of using their own sperm to impregnate a patient.
In 2017, a retired Indianapolis fertility doctor avoided jail time for lying about using his own sperm to impregnate as many as dozens of women after telling them the donors were anonymous. Dr. Donald Cline was given a one-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice. Indiana law didn't specifically prohibit fertility doctors from using their own sperm.
In 2022, a federal court jury in Vermont awarded a woman $5.25 million from a doctor who used his own sperm to impregnate her during an artificial insemination procedure in 1977. The jury awarded plaintiff Cheryl Rousseau $250,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages from Dr. John Coates III.
And this year a New York fertility doctor who was accused of using his own sperm to impregnate several patients died when the hand-built airplane he was in fell apart mid-flight and crashed, authorities said. Dr. Morris Wortman, 72, of Rochester, was a well-known OB-GYN who was sued in 2021 by the daughter of one of his patients who became pregnant in the 1980s.
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