A family is reeling after learning that a seemingly routine artificial insemination procedure nearly 30 years ago was botched, they say, and the man that one woman calls dad is not actually her biological father.
In a lawuit filed Feb. 2, Jeanine and John “Mike” Harvey say they visited the IUF Center at Akron City Hospital, now known as Summa Health System, 30 years ago for help in conceiving a child.
"Our goal couldn't have been clearer," Jeanine Harvey said during a press conference on Feb. 2, 2022. "We wanted a child who is genetically related to both of us."
Jeanine says the couple gave their consent to have Dr. Nicholas J. Spirtos, who at the time was serving as the chief of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility and In Vitro Fertilization/Embryo Transfer at the hospital, to perform an intrauterine insemination (IUI) — a fertility procedure in which sperm is washed, concentrated, and then placed directly in the patient's uterus as eggs are released.
"Without our knowledge, Dr. Spirtos used a stranger's sperm, instead of my husband's," Jeanine added. "I got pregnant and our daughter Jessica was born in 1992. Harvey girls were very rare in the family, so we were so excited. I screamed and scared the doctors half to death when she was born."
TODAY Parents reached out to Dr. Spirtos for comment by phone and email, but did not hear back at the time of publication.
Summa Health released a statement from Mike Bernstein, System Director of Corporate Communications, saying: “We are aware of an allegation that has been made claiming in 1991 a patient was artificially inseminated with the semen from a person who is not her husband. We take this allegation seriously and understand the impact this has on the family. At this point, we have not met with the family or conducted testing of our own. Given the very limited information that we have and the amount of time that has passed, it remains our hope that the attorneys representing the family will work with us to make that next step a priority.”
This lawsuit is the latest of several high-profile allegations about assisted reproduction mix-ups that resulted in women unknowingly being inseminated with the wrong sperm.
Thirty years passed, and the family said they had no reason to believe that their daughter, Jessica, was not Mike's biological daughter. It wasn't until Jessica and her husband asked for a DNA test for Christmas in 2020, ahead of a trip to Europe, that they realized the unimaginable had happened.
"How cool, we thought, it would be to connect with distant relatives in the countries that we might be visiting," Jessica said during the same press conference. "My parents got us Ancestry DNA kits as Christmas gifts, and since then our lives have never been the same, and never will be."
In the lawsuit, the family says the DNA test revealed that Mike was not Jessica's biological father, and Jeanine had been impregnated with someone else's sperm.
"It revealed a trauma that I never could have imagined," Jeanine said. "It has taken every ounce of power to remain strong for my family and for myself as we try to move forward. Mike is my husband, Jessica is my daughter, and there's no DNA test that will change that. But we will hold Dr. Spirtos and Summa Health accountable for this."
The family is suing Dr. Spirtos and Summa Health Sytems, alleging "medical malpractice, battery, lack of informed consent, multiple instances of negligence, the failed safeguarding of genetic material, and the list goes on," according to one of the family's lawyers, Adam Wolf.
The family lawyers provided documentation to TODAY Parents including lab tests that show John Harvey is not Jessica's biological father.
Holding the infertility industry accountable
The advent of at-home DNA tests, like 23AndMe and AncestryDNA, have uncovered a number of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and IUI mix-ups.
Thirteen years after the birth of their son, Donna and Vanner Johnson discovered another man's sperm had been used to fertilize Donna's egg, and their son was not Vanner's biological child.
"Nail salons are subjected to far tighter controls than the labs in fertility clinics."
Harvey family lawyer Adam WolF
In California, Alexander and Daphna Cardinale realized a fertility clinic had implanted a stranger's embryo into Daphna's uterus. Months later, she gave birth to a child that was not biologically theirs — Daphna had been an unwilling surrogate, while another woman had carried and birthed her biological child. The two families eventually "swapped" babies.
"As consumers, we think of fertility clinics as highly professional organizations governed by strict rules," Wolf said. "But the truth is, nail salons are subjected to far tighter controls than the labs in fertility clinics. Unlike virtually every other developed country, there is no comprehensive, meaningful federal oversight over this multi-billion dollar industry: big fertility."
The family and their lawyers did not reveal the amount of financial compensation they are seeking, but did say they are sharing their story in the hopes that they can change the way fertility clinics are regulated and operate.
"I would like to inflict some serious change," Jessica said. "All change starts with someone for some reason — if this is the situation that causes that change, I'm all for it. But regulations have to change. The training... Something has to change. This can't be happening in 2022. We can't be having this issue."
What was lost and what was gained
The family says Jessica enjoyed learning about and celebrating her dad, Mike's, Italian heritage, so learning that she is not biologically Italian was devastating.
"We can no longer share our private Italian jokes and enjoy our little Italian get togethers, it's just too painful for her," her mother, Jeanine, said. "Her heritage has literally been stripped away from her."
Jessica said she worried about her medical history and started trying to figure out who her biological father was.
"I logged onto the relative portion of the (Ancestry DNA) app and would find the closest related match on there," Jessica explains. "I would take that name, search for them on Facebook, find that name in the Ohio area, message them and say, 'Hey, I just took an Ancestry DNA test. Are you the same person on here?' And I did that probably hundreds of times for several months until I started narrowing everything down."
Eventually, Jessica said she found her biological father, who is named "Mr. Barrett" in the claim to protect his privacy.
"Once I confirmed it with him, we began to text. And once I started getting into some long texts, he decided to just call me straight," Jessica added.
The Harvey family lawyers shared with TODAY Parents lab tests showing that “Mr. Barrett” is Jessica’s father, with 99.99% certainty, as well as affidavits from “Mr. Barrett” and his ex-wife saying that they underwent fertility treatments at the same facility during the same time period as the Harveys.
"I blurted out in the phone, I said, 'I don't want to surprise you, but I think you might be my biological father.' And his exact words were: 'I'm not scared. This is great news. I have gone my entire life thinking I have no children, and this is great news. I have a daughter,'' Jessica shared. "He has been absolutely supportive. He's helped me with any questions I've had. He's already given me some of the medical history on his side of the family to make me feel more comfortable about my new sense of life. He's been more than helpful."
Jessica says that, for now, her relationship with her biological father has consisted of simple, celebratory text messages — "Happy Birthday" and "Happy New Year" — but she is open to meeting any additional biological family members she may have in the future.
And while the family is still navigating their new reality, they're hoping their decision to publicly share their story will help others.
"I know that we are not alone in our pain. So many other families have gone through the same kind of unimaginable circumstances, have been forced to put the pieces of their lives back together," Jessica said. "It's not fair to them, just like it's not fair to my family and I.... This has to stop."