Following revelations that Dr. Philip Peven secretly used his own sperm to inseminate patients, others come forward with accounts of fertility fraud.
More people in the Detroit area are thinking about their DNA heritage and coming forward with stories of their own fertility fraud experiences after the Detroit Jewish News reported last month that Dr. Philip Peven, a well-respected OB-GYN in the Detroit Jewish community, had secretly used his own sperm to artificially inseminate some patients.
The JN story, however, alarmed some readers who — although not having taken a DNA test or having any reason to suspect artificial insemination in their conception — are now curious about circumstances of their births.
Plymouth resident Michele Santillan was delivered by Dr. Peven in 1971. After reading reports about his practices from the Jewish News and other news outlets, she began to wonder whether he may be her biological father. Her parents have passed away, and she can’t ask them directly, so she got a DNA testing kit to find out about her true parentage.
“It just opened up a lot of questions for me, I guess, more than anything else,” she said. She hasn’t yet received her results.
Over the course of his decades-long career, Dr. Peven delivered around 9,000 babies, some of them conceived via artificial insemination. It is unknown how many times Peven used his own sperm to artificially inseminate a patient, and to date he hasn’t taken a DNA test to help verify the number, according to his son Roger.
Shortly before the publication of the JN story, the University of Michigan Medical School quietly removed an online article from its alumni magazine, originally published in 2017, that profiled Dr. Peven’s prolific fertility career. At 104, he is currently the oldest living alum of the medical school. A U-M Medicine spokesperson declined comment.
Indeed, Dr. Peven may not have been the only local OB-GYN to artificially inseminate patients using his own sperm without patients’ knowledge.
A member of the Detroit Jewish community published an anonymous essay in the JN on March 7, 2019, detailing the experience of finding out they were donor-conceived by their mother’s doctor.
The writer prefers to remain anonymous to protect their privacy.
Though the person declined to share the name of the doctor, the writer confirmed it was not Dr. Peven and that their mother’s doctor worked at Women’s Hospital and Sinai Hospital.
“In the end, I am convinced that neither of my parents knew the truth about my biological father, who handled the procedure in an unethical and short-sighted manner, and on a still-unknown number of patients,” the writer’s 2019 essay reads.
The writer spoke to the JN again via an intermediary after the news of Dr. Peven’s actions broke.
“I now realize that it was a different time, a time when doctors were not questioned, but I still consider the doctor’s behavior unprincipled, unethical and possibly dangerous,” the person said.
In the 1950s, when the writer and when Dr. Peven’s oldest on-record offspring were born, most Jewish people in the Detroit area lived in the same neighborhoods and went to the same hospitals to give birth.
“The possibility was certainly there that half-siblings could meet, marry and have children,” the person said. “I do realize the doctor was trying to be helpful in enabling couples to have a child, but he should have told the mother he was using his own sperm. I doubt most women would have said yes to that scenario.”
Not every male fertility doctor in the mid-20th century was using his own sample to artificially inseminate patients, but practitioners were operating under a different set of social norms than today’s doctors, said Indiana University law professor Jody Madeira.
Still, Madeira said, “at face, no matter what you’re practicing, you don’t lie to your patients.”
When Lynne Weiner Spencer’s parents went to Dr. Sylvester Trythall’s Detroit fertility clinic for help conceiving in the late 1950s, he told them he would use a medical student’s sperm to artificially inseminate Spencer’s mother, Spencer said. Spencer later found out that the doctor had lied, instead using the sperm of another patient’s husband who was a regular donor at his clinic.
At the time, Dr. Trythall, who passed away in 1970, had told Spencer’s mother he’d mixed Spencer’s dad’s semen with that of a donor from the medical school, a common practice at the time, her mom told her.
Spencer’s mother told her she’d been donor-conceived in 1993. Spencer then spent years looking through records of Wayne State University medical students, thinking one of them must have been her biological parent. After connecting with her first half-sibling through DNA tests in 2014, Spencer eventually deduced that their donor had not been a medical student, as the doctor had promised her parents.
Instead, he was a man named Hank Heemsoth, who had worked for Chrysler and done odd jobs for Dr. Trythall around the house. Heemsoth passed away in 2006.
“I was really upset because I spent so much time looking for someone who was a medical student,” Spencer told the JN. She said her objection to the revelation wasn’t Heemsoth’s education level, but rather the deception practiced by her parents’ doctor. “Just because [Heemsoth was] not educated doesn’t mean that he’s not intelligent … But just the fact that Dr. Trythall was lying to our parents — that’s not right.”
Since then, Spencer has found 58 half-siblings who are also the donor offspring of Heemsoth (including the sister she grew up with, who turned out to have had the same donor). Most of their parents were patients of Dr. Trythall or his partners. Jen Urbanczyk, a half-sibling, confirmed that her parents were also told their donor would be a medical student.
Spencer, Urbancyzk and many of the other siblings keep in touch on a private Facebook page and have even gathered for “family reunions” in the past.
Spencer has also connected with Steve Heemsoth, the son of their donor. She’s been lucky to have had such a good relationship with a close relative of her donor, she said — he’s been to their “family reunion” and has given them information on his father’s health history.
Steve told the JN that his father was “such a good guy, just real kind-hearted, quiet, and he just had such a good sense of humor.” He was a hard worker, he said, always working multiple jobs and staying busy. Steve came along with his dad to do yardwork at Dr. Trythall’s house when he was a kid.
And, he said, “My dad did work in a hospital — but he worked in the hospital as a cook.”
Steve never discussed his dad’s sperm donations with him. Still, Steve believes that doctors — and parents — should have been more open about donor-conception.
“I think everybody should know the truth right up front,” he said. “We’re only around so many years and, I mean, honesty has always been the best policy.”
A Mother’s Secret
Spencer and Steve’s half-sister Nichole McLendon agrees. She found out about her donor-conception in October 2020 after doing an at-home DNA test. She was contacted by a half-sibling who asked if she’d been donor-conceived.
McLendon confronted her mother recently and got her to admit she’d used artificial insemination. But McLendon found it painful to think about her mother keeping the secret through so many difficult life events, including McLendon’s own brain tumor and her dad’s dementia.
“I was a gift. I was wanted. I couldn’t be conceived any other way. I don’t understand the shame she’s feeling,” she said. “I don’t understand why I had to find out at 43 from a stranger on Facebook. It shouldn’t be a mystery.”
It’s unknown exactly how many times or for how long Hank Heemsoth donated sperm for Dr. Trythall and his partners. The Trythall clinic was sold several decades ago to other doctors and eventually became International Cryogenics, a Metro Detroit sperm bank.
The ages of Heemsoth’s donor offspring that have so far been discovered are spread out over a period of more than 30 years, though Steve said he thinks his dad only donated for a period of 10-20 years. When contacted by the JN, International Cryogenics said they don’t give out the names of donors, but that they have never had someone donate for over 30 years.
It’s within the realm of possibility Heemsoth’s samples were frozen, as there’s no limit to how long a sperm sample can be cryogenically preserved.
McLendon decided to break the chain of secrecy and told her own children about her DNA discovery. She also told them that if they ever meet a romantic partner they’re serious about, she’ll purchase a DNA test for the partner.
“I said, ‘You know, if there could be thousands of half-siblings of mine out there, how many then potential people related to you could be out there?’” she said. “It was a weird conversation.”
Need for Truth
Looking back, Spencer said there were some hints in her childhood that could have pointed to a donor-conception. Spencer grew up Jewish, and her father used to say he had some Native American blood mixed in with his Jewish heritage. Spencer and her sister both had olive skin, while their parents were paler.
“I think it probably was his way of wondering if there was any other genetics in our background,” Spencer said.
Spencer had also been active in Jewish youth groups and gone to Israel in high school, but she lost her connection to the religion in college. The discovery that Hank Heemsoth wasn’t Jewish means that Spencer is only 50% genetically Jewish — a revelation that has prompted her to reflect.
“I wonder, well, did part of me have other leanings because of my genes?” she said.
Either way, Spencer wishes there hadn’t been such an air of secrecy surrounding the circumstances of her birth. Even after her mother told her and her sister about their conception, she didn’t want to revisit the conversation.
Part of it was stigma surrounding fertility issues, Spencer hypothesizes. But it was also because doctors had told their patients not to tell anybody, even their children, about their artificial insemination, she said.
“In my opinion, they were doing a lot of unethical things and there’s no oversight of what they’re doing, and they want it all kept … behind closed doors,” she told the JN.
But “I knew right away that I needed to talk about it,” she said. “I think it’s important that people know what is going on.”
If you have information you would like to share with the JN concerning Dr. Peven, your family and/or other cases of donor deception, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.