A woman allegedly discovered her biological father was the fertility doctor her parents used to conceive her in 1980 through an Ancestry.com DNA test, according to a lawsuit filed last week.
Howard Fowler and Sally Ashby, then married but now divorced, were having difficulty conceiving, and in 1979 they sought help from Dr. Gerald E. Mortimer, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Idaho. The suit alleges Mortimer diagnosed Fowler with “a low sperm count and a low sperm mortality” and diagnosed Ashby with a tipped uterus. Mortimer completed a procedure in June, July, and August 1980 in which a mixture 85% of Fowlers’ DNA along with 15% of a donor’s DNA are used for the insemination. The couple specified that they would only do the procedure if the donor was a college student, over 6-feet tall, with brown hair and blue eyes.
Ashby became pregnant in August 1980.
But in July 2017, Ashby and Fowler’s daughter Kelli Rowlette “received a notification on Ancestry.com that a DNA sample she had submitted matched with Dr. Mortimer’s DNA sample,” according to the complaint. “Ancestry.com predicted a parent-child relationship between Dr. Mortimer and Mrs. Rowlette.” Rowlette, who is also listed as a plaintiff, did not know who Dr. Mortimer was when she saw the notification.
Rowlette was convinced that the Ancestry.com test was an error, and mentioned this to Ashby, who after examining the results on her own was “devastated” to see Dr. Mortimer’s name. Ashby told Folwer, and the two of them allegedly anguished over whether to tell their daughter. Rowlette eventually found out, when helping go through old papers discovered her birth certificate with Dr. Mortimer’s signature on it.
The couple maintains in the complaint that they did not know that Dr. Mortimer’s genetic material was being used. “Had Mr. Fowler and Ms. Ashby known Dr. Mortimer was going to inseminate Ms. Ashby with his own genetic material, they would not have agreed to the Procedure,” the complaint says.
TIME called a number for Dr. Mortimer, but it went straight to a full voicemail inbox; we will try back. TIME also attempted to reach him at a number listed on a Facebook page, but was told that Dr. Mortimer had retired several years ago.
Ancestry.com said in a statement, “DNA testing helps people make new and powerful discoveries about their family history and identity. We are committed to delivering the most accurate results, however with this, people may learn of unexpected connections.”
“With Ancestry, customers maintain ownership and control over their DNA data,” the statement continued. “Anyone who takes a test can change their DNA matching settings at any time, meaning that if they opt out, their profile and relationship will not be visible to other customers.”
Ashby, Fowler and Rowlette are suing Dr. Mortimer, now-retired, along with Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates of Idaho Falls, where he used to practice, for battery, fraud, intentional and negligent emotional distress, breach of contract and medical negligence, among other charges. They are seeking $75,000 in damages, according to the complaint.
“After much consideration, Mrs. Rowlette and her family made the difficult decision to allow their personal grief to become public through the legal process,” the family’s attorney Shea C. Meehan said in a statement via email. “Ultimately this decision was made for the purpose of holding the responsible parties accountable for a grievous and damaging violation of trust. While the family understands the public’s interest in their story, they ask that their privacy be respected as they focus on the difficult process of healing from this trauma.”
When reached for comment, the Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates of Idaho Falls gave the following statement: “None of the healthcare providers of were part of the Obstetrics and Gynecology Associate of Idaho Falls practice from 1979 to 1980, and have diligently strived to provide care to their patients that is in compliance of the standards of healthcare practice.”
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