Could problems related to the practice of an Ottawa fertility doctor accused of inseminating couples with his own sperm stretch back four decades?
That’s the prospect lawyers in a pending class action lawsuit are raising as they appeal to anyone who saw Dr. Norman Barwin for fertility help to contact them.
Barwin was hired in 1973 at what was then the Ottawa General Hospital as director of its high-risk pregnancy unit and co-director of its fertility clinic.
He also established a sperm bank at the clinic.
Barwin worked at the facility, now known as The Ottawa Hospital’s General campus, until 1984, when he set up a private practice, the Broadview Fertility Clinic.
Errors made at that clinic have spawned at least four lawsuits against Barwin, including the class action filed last year, and professional sanctions from the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons.
In 2013, Barwin told a disciplinary hearing that he had “no idea” how three clients at his Broadview clinic were inseminated with the wrong sperm. As part of a plea bargain in that case, he was banned from practising medicine for two months and agreed to permanently end his fertility practice.
“It is hard to imagine a more fundamental error in your former speciality,” disciplinary panel chairman Dr. William King said at the time.
Ottawa lawyers Peter Cronyn and Frances Shapiro Munn now allege similar issues may go back decades in Barwin’s career.
“Since the class action was issued last year, we continue to be contacted by many people who were former patients of Dr. Barwin, and their children,” says a website developed by the law firm, Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP, to provide information to plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Although not yet able to provide full details about what those people have alleged, the firm says several things “are becoming apparent,” including the possibility that problems with Barwin’s work “may have occurred at all points in time throughout his practice in Ontario.”
“Therefore,” the lawyers said, “it is important to note that anyone at any point in time who saw Dr. Barwin for assistance in conceiving a child in Ontario at either The Ottawa Hospital or the Broadview Fertility Clinic may be affected.”
Asked about those allegations, Barwin’s lawyer, Karen Hamway, said the doctor has no comment.
The class action lawsuit was launched last year and alleges that Barwin inseminated two couples with his own sperm at the Broadview clinic. According to the lawsuit, DNA tests have confirmed that two of the now adult women conceived at the clinic are half-sisters based on their paternal line.
The lawsuit contends that one of the women, Kat Palmer, 26, was also told by Barwin in an October 2015 email that he was her biological father based on a paternity test to which he agreed.
Lawyers have asked the court to order Barwin, 78, to provide a DNA sample so that other children conceived at his clinic can find out whether he’s their father.
The lawsuit has yet to be certified by a judge, and none of its allegations have been tested in court.
Lawyer Peter Cronyn said he expects the case to move forward in early 2018. The next case conference is scheduled for Jan. 31.
During his decades-long medical career, Barwin was immensely popular with patients, and helped thousands of them conceive children. He received many accolades and honours for his work, including an honorary degree from Carleton University and an appointment to the Order of Canada, from which he resigned in 2013.
The South African-born Barwin was a pioneer in the field of transgender surgery, and a tireless advocate for both abortion rights and government-funded fertility treatments.