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DNA Test Reveals Fertility Doctor Used His Own Sperm To Impregnate Patient

A 36-year-old woman who had her DNA tested by Ancestry.com says she was shocked to learn that her biological father was her parents' fertility doctor.
Jose A. Bernat Bacete
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A 36-year-old woman who had her DNA tested by Ancestry.com says she was shocked to learn that her biological father was her parents' fertility doctor.

When people send away samples for DNA testing they're often hoping the results can help them trace the lineage of their families over centuries and across continents. But when Kelli Rowlette received her results from Ancestry.com she discovered a much closer connection — about 500 miles away from where she lives — dating back to May 20, 1981. Her own birthday.

The results showed Rowlette's biological father was not the man she'd always known, but a stranger named Gerald Mortimer — a man she later found out had been her parents' fertility doctor and had impregnated her mother with his own sperm without her mother's knowledge or consent.

Last week, Rowlette filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Idaho against Mortimer; his wife, Linda McKinnon Mortimer; and Obstetrics and Gynecology Associates of Idaho Falls, seeking $10 million in damages for fraud, medical negligence, battery and several other charges related to the alleged deception.

For years, before Rowlette was born, her parents, Sally Ashby and Howard Fowler, struggled to conceive, according to court documents. Eventually they sought professional help from Mortimer, who diagnosed Ashby with a tipped uterus and Fowler with a low sperm count and low sperm motility.

The doctor's solution for the couple: Inseminate Ashby with a sperm cocktail containing 85 percent of Fowler's "genetic material" and source the rest from a donor. The couple agreed with a few conditions. The donor sperm had to come from a college student who looked like Fowler with brown hair, blue eyes and over 6 feet tall.

Some time later, Mortimer claimed to have found just the right specimen. Only he hadn't, the lawsuit alleges.

Over three months, Ashby underwent nine treatments. And in August 1980, Ashby finally became pregnant. She gave birth to Kelli in May 1981.

Had they known that Mortimer was going to inseminate Ashby with his own genetic material, they would not have agreed to the procedure, the lawsuit says.

Mortimer remained Ashby's OB-GYN for several more years, and when the couple told the doctor of their plans to move from Idaho to Washington, the court documents say he cried.

The complaint describes how the truth of the couple's reproductive troubles remained a secret from Rowlette. When she received the report from Ancestry.com in July 2017 connecting her to Mortimer, she dismissed the results as a mistake.

"She mentioned the confusing results to Ms. Ashby and relayed her disappointment in the unreliability of the service she had thought she was getting from Ancestry.com," the lawsuit says.

However, Ashby recognized the name and was "devastated" by the revelation. She reached out to Fowler, now her ex-husband, to share the shocking truth. He was equally in "anguish." Still, they refrained from sharing their history with Rowlette.

The lawsuit says they "struggled to cope with their own anguish, and had difficulty contemplating the torment the discovery would cause their daughter when and if she found out."

It wasn't until Rowlette was helping clean up her father's house that she finally discovered her parents' connection to Mortimer. While tidying up her his roll-top desk, she found her birth certificate. It was signed by Mortimer, the complaint alleges.

Since discovering the physician's actions, the three "have been suffering immeasurably," the complaint alleges.

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Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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