Pauline Chambless had dreamed of becoming a mother for well over a decade. But when she struggled to conceive, she called upon a fertility doctor for help. Chambless even maintained a close bond with that medic until she finally had her child, Jessica, in 1987. That all changed, though, when the DNA test Chambless’ daughter took in 2020 exposed a dark secret. And that shocking news would end up devastating the young woman and her mom.
This bombshell would likely have taken Chambless by complete surprise, too, as she had a long history with her physician, Dr. Kim McMorries. Chambless’ battle with infertility dated back to the early 1970s. At that time, she was trying to get pregnant with her husband. Tragically, though, she ultimately lost several babies to miscarriage.
But in 1984 Dr. McMorries was considered to be the go-to guy for local couples who couldn’t conceive. He worked with Chambless and her husband for over two years, utilizing sperm from unnamed donors. And when Chambless finally fell pregnant in 1986, their hard efforts paid off.
Chambless ended nearly 15 years of heartache when she gave birth to Jessica in 1987. More than three decades later, though, the family received an unexpected shock to the system. It all started when the mom’s daughter decided that she wanted to learn more about the sperm donor who helped to create her.
And what was found out would turn the whole family’s world upside down. The secret also brought back Chambless’ traumatic memories of the conception process – which started with their search for the perfect match. What happened? Well, Dr. McMorries first provided the parents-to-be with a document that listed a number of different attributes about potential sperm donors. They ranged from nationality to hair color.
Once Chambless and her partner had highlighted their preferences, they were under the impression that the information would be used to align them with potential donors who fitted those categories. After that, the mother-to-be started her treatment with McMorries. But as it turned out, it wasn’t all plain sailing at the fertility clinic.
Indeed, while a few of the artificial inseminations appeared to work, Chambless lost each of those babies a few weeks later. And this unsurprisingly took its toll on Chambless, with each loss only adding to the pain she already felt from her fertility struggles over the years before. But during an interview with the New York Post in May 2020, Chambless applauded McMorries for his helpful presence in such times of pain.
“Over that period of time, you build up trust for someone who appears to be doing his very best to try to help you conceive,” Chambless told the publication. “I put my faith in [McMorries]. You couldn’t have asked for a more caring, polite, likable person and doctor.”
Chambless also recalled that McMorries was with her every step of the way even after the treatment led to her successful pregnancy. She added, “As soon as I got to the hospital in labor, he came and stayed by my side. [He was with me] through delivery until an hour after Jessica was born.”
Prior to Jessica Stavena’s birth, Chambless was given some details regarding the unnamed sperm donor, such as his vocation and interests. Then, as time went on, she passed that information on to her daughter. For you see, Stavena has known about the circumstances of her conception for much of her life.
Stavena told the New York Post, “Mom was completely honest, and it made me feel special. I knew how hard she’d tried to have me. She also shared everything she knew about my biological father – that he was a tall medical student, with red hair who loved music. I’d often wonder if one day I’d meet him.”
Stavena was also curious to learn more about the donor’s family, wondering whether she had any brothers or sisters out there, too. And she was keen to uncover the clan’s health history as well. For you see Chambless’ daughter suffered from certain medical ailments that had left doctors scratching their heads, so she hoped to find some answers in her estranged family.
With that aim, Stavena finally took a DNA test in January 2020 – more than three decades on from her mother’s pregnancy. Before long, the results had arrived at her home in Houston, Texas, and she was on the phone with Chambless to share the news.
“My heart was pounding so hard – I could hear it,” Stavena recalled to the newspaper. “My husband had Mom on speakerphone as I clicked to see my relatives. Suddenly, I had three half-siblings: two sisters and a brother. I was ecstatic.” From there, she quickly made her way onto social media.
Stavena sent friend requests to her new relatives, and it didn’t take long for one of them to get back to her. The woman in question was named Eve Wiley, who also hailed from Texas. And in her response, she had a query for her newly-discovered half-sister.
Wiley wrote, “Hi! Do you know the details of our birth story? Was Dr. McMorries your mom’s doctor?” When Stavena replied with a simple yes, she was completely unaware of the huge bombshell that her sibling was about to drop. And afterward, both Stavena and Chambless would be left utterly stunned.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Wiley said. “But [McMorries] is also our biological father.” Unsurprisingly, Chambless and Stavena were taken aback by the message, with the former finding it particularly hard to compute. Indeed, the bond she had shared with McMorries all those years ago had suddenly been thrown under a far more sinister light.
In an interview with the New York Post, Chambless said, “I just thought, ‘No, that’s absolutely impossible.’ I would never have agreed for my doctor to donate sperm. To give birth to your baby in front of your husband, while the doctor delivering her is the biological father? It blows my mind that he thought that was okay.”
And Chambless elaborated on her reaction to the troubling news in a letter Stavena shared with Scribol.com in July 2020. She wrote, “It was something I would have never agreed to – mostly because of the ethical reasons. He was my doctor, and that is how it should have stayed. What he did was very unethical, deceptive, selfish, and inconsiderate – that he could make a decision for me and my child that would cause a lifetime of emotional trauma and pain.”
Stavena’s thoughts on the situation were pretty similar, too. When she opened up to the New York Post in May 2020, the Houston resident said, “I felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. My mind was spinning, trying to understand what Eve had written. How could that possibly be true?”
At this point, Chambless and Stavena were just trying to come to terms with the information. But, of course, Wiley knew all too well the maelstrom of emotions they were experiencing. Much like her half-sibling, she was welcomed into the world in 1987 and had spent her formative years in Center, Texas.
Unlike Stavena, though, Wiley had no idea that she had been conceived through a sperm donor until she was much older. By that point, her mom was the sole provider for the family, following the passing of her dad. The youngster eventually accessed the information as a 16-year-old, when she browsed her parent’s messages.
Speaking to TV station ABC News in May 2019, Wiley recalled, “I saw all of these emails about artificial insemination. And after about the tenth or 11th one, I clicked on it. And when I clicked on that one, I scrolled down to the bottom and it said: ‘I’m just gathering information for my daughter. She was born July 28th of 1987.’ And that’s my birthday.”
Wiley spoke to her mom soon after reading the message and discovered that she’d had fertility issues prior to Wiley’s birth. So, before going through the same process as Chambless, her folks also visited McMorries’ clinic in Nacogdoches. But tracing down her relatives would prove trickier than Wiley once thought.
You see, when sperm from Wiley’s dad and an unnamed donor didn’t yield results, her mother had picked a different sample that came from a cryobank in California. Known as “Donor Number 106,” that selection was made after she looked at his characteristics in a document. Her choice eventually led to the pregnancy that brought Wiley into the world.
After finding that out, Wiley got in contact with the donor a couple of years later, connecting with a man named Steve Scholl. The pair hit it off fairly quickly and formed a loving bond. Such was the strength of their relationship, Scholl even served as the officiator at her wedding.
However, Wiley’s world was turned upside down when she, too, decided to take a DNA test. She was 30 years old at the time and wondered if she had any other half-brothers or sisters through Scholl’s samples. She soon found a first cousin who confirmed that his biological uncle was McMorries.
From there, Wiley went on to send McMorries a message, which eventually led to the doctor certifying that he had used his own sperm in the artificial insemination. The doctor explained, “Since I had been a donor while in medical school, I spoke with one of my mentors. And he said they were having better success by mixing [sperm] samples.”
McMorries continued, “[My mentor] suggested first taking the patient’s husband’s sample and combining it with the donor. If the husband’s sample was too poor, then combining two donor samples might do better. The thinking at that time was that if the patient got pregnant, there was no way to know which sperm affected the conception. No one ever considered the effect of genetic testing 32 years later,” he added.
According to McMorries, Wiley’s mom gave him permission to use a “local” donor, but he couldn’t actually reveal that the sample was his. If he did, he would’ve been in breach of an “anonymity agreement.” But the parent has maintained that those discussions never took place.
Since finding out her parentage, Wiley says she’s found more instances where McMorries hasn’t been completely honest with patients. As she explained to Scribol.com in July 2020, “He originally told me there were one-two births from his donations. Then when we hit five, he said he was only allowed to do this five times. Now we are at nine [children], and he says it’s five per area.”
For Wiley, though, the details of the insemination process that took place are particularly troubling. You see, given that sperm can only live for 30 minutes outside of the cervical mucus, the doctor would have had to produce his sample and then quickly return to deposit it into the woman.
She told Scribol.com, “When this happens, the lines of doctor and donor are blurred, and we are unable to determine when the sexual experience ends during that process. This was happening on top of the fact that the women did not assent or consent to the doctor using his own when they specifically consented to a certain donor.”
Wiley was also keen to point out that when she, Stavena and their other half-siblings were being conceived, the world was in the midst of the AIDs epidemic. She told Scribol.com, “Our parents thought they were getting medically screened, quarantined, frozen sperm. Instead of fresh semen from a doctor who is constantly exposed to blood and not tested for the virus.”
So, when Chambless and Stavena’s case hit the headlines, a law professor from Indiana University came forward. Her name is Jody Lyneé Madeira, and she believes that both Chambless’ and Wiley’s families were casualties of “fertility fraud.” “[This is] an intentional act that occurs when a doctor knowingly uses his own sperm to inseminate a female patient without her consent,” she told the New York Post.
It was back in June 2019 that Madeira first voiced her concerns about McMorries’ conduct to the Texas Medical Board. But the complaint was thrown out a few months later, and as a consequence, the doctor still continued to operate out of Nacogdoches. Later that year, however, there was a significant change in the law regarding fertility fraud.
Indeed, every week for four months Wiley would drive to Austin and share her story with various legislators in order to gain support for the bill. And the only opposition that she came up against was McMorries’ best friend, who continued to claim that the doctor “didn’t do anything wrong.” Finally, though, the state confirmed that if a person is artificially inseminated with samples from an “unauthorized” source, that’s now officially considered a form of sexual assault. Yet in other parts of the country, cases of a similar nature still aren’t considered to be illegal.
Needless to say, Madeira hasn’t been shy in sharing her opinion on the matter. “Cases like this are cropping up all over the country at this point,” the lawyer informed ABC News in May 2019. “A lot of people have compared the fertility industry to the Wild West. There’s very, very little criminal [charges] holding these people accountable. The question is, are these physicians playing God?”
Madeira’s stance remained the same when she spoke to the New York Post, too, condemning McMorries again for his part in Chambless’ pregnancy. She argued, “It was always unlawful to intentionally deceive patients about the medical treatment they would receive. And let’s be honest – no patient expected that their doctor might be their donor.”
But while the law change has no doubt been welcomed by a lot of people in Texas, cases are becoming increasingly difficult to prove in court. Madeira admitted, “The problem is that these [fertility fraud] cases are coming to light decades later, after statutes of limitation have run [out], and after most patients’ records have been destroyed. This makes these charges very difficult to prosecute. Although it’s easier to bring a civil suit.”
As for Chambless and Stavena, they continue to struggle with the psychological fallout of their mothers’ experiences. The pair were left overwhelmed by the results of the DNA test, with Stavena uncovering seven half-brothers and sisters by May 2020. In the end, though, two things proved especially upsetting for them.
“[Chambless] didn’t consent to this,” Stavena told the New York Post. “Seeing [McMorries’] picture, I think, ‘How could he? Who made him God?’ I just can’t get past the anger and hurt for my mom.” The Houston resident then segued into her second point, looking ahead to a concerning future.
Stavena concluded, “Three of our siblings live in the same town, and two of them have children that go to the same school. How was [McMorries] going to prevent accidental incest? Every day you wake up with an emotional hangover because you have gone through so many feelings. [But] knowledge is power.”
Wiley and Stavena are not the only daughters to have had their lives shattered by the results of a DNA test, though. When Rebecca Cartellone found herself pondering her family history, she too decided to take a DNA test. But unlike Wiley and Stavena, Rebecca decided to gift her mom and dad the testing kits for Christmas. And while she’d thought that exploring her family heritage with her parents would make the perfect present for the holidays, it soon became clear that Rebecca’s well-intentioned gift was one that the family wishes they’d never unwrapped.
Rebecca had been born in November 1994 to Joseph and Jennifer Cartellone, and she had remained the couple’s much-beloved only child even as she grew up. In time, though, the Cartellones’ daughter was eager to learn more about her unique family heritage, which was Italian on her father’s side.
With that in mind, Rebecca decided to gift her parents DNA tests so that they could all learn more about their roots. She would undergo the same procedure, too, so that she and her mom and dad could examine their shared heritage together. As Rebecca handed over the presents to her folks, though, she had no idea that the findings would come to tear her world apart.
It’s fair to say that at-home DNA testing has emerged as something of a phenomenon in the last decade. That rise seems to have been fueled, moreover, by the public’s interest in family history. In 2014, in fact, genealogy became the second most popular hobby in the United States. And the concept of tracing one’s heritage is now a billion-dollar enterprise that is catered to by a number of websites, books and TV shows.
Meanwhile, genetic testing kits as we know them today first hit the market in 2007 – the same year that 23andMe launched its saliva-based DNA test. Family history giant Ancestry followed by launching its own DNA service in 2012, and this has since risen to become one of the most popular such schemes in the world. It may have helped, however, that as of 2019 Ancestry has accumulated over ten million people on its database – thus making the chances of finding previously unknown relatives a distinct possibility.
So, how do these tests work? Well, naturally, they require a user to provide a DNA sample, and this typically comes by way of a spit cup, a cheek swab, mouthwash or even chewing gum. The customer then returns their completed kit to a provider, which subsequently analyzes the DNA to give an estimate of that person’s ethnicity. But while the results can give some fascinating insights into your heritage, there are nevertheless some risks to the process, too.
You see, as DNA genealogy testing has risen in popularity, occasional horror stories have emerged. There are people who have been given the wrong results, for instance, while others have made discoveries that have changed their lives forever. So while the equipment used in the analysis of your DNA is generally sound, the findings themselves may come as a shock.
For example, one man claimed online that he had unknowingly been dating his half-sister. According to the poster, the couple had known beforehand that they had both been born through IVF and sperm donation, and so they had each hoped to learn more about their paternal heritage. The anonymous Reddit user added that his girlfriend had therefore bought both of them DNA test kits for Christmas.
The Redditor said, however, that when the pair had received their DNA results, they had found that they were in fact half-siblings who shared the same father. It seemed likely, then, that both had been conceived using sperm from the same donor. And when sharing the news in 2019, the poster revealed his astonishment, writing, “I have to express what my mental state is now. To put it in simple words: I feel traumatized.”
The man in question also posted what appeared to be the results from the DNA service and claimed that he’d been torn between his love for his girlfriend and the notion that they’d been unwittingly committing incest. And as you can imagine, the discovery apparently left both him and his partner in utter shock and desperately seeking further answers.
Elsewhere online, there are countless stories of people who have found out the real truth of their parentage. For instance, in 2018 The Guardian relayed the story of a woman named only as Michèle, who had reportedly discovered that the man who had raised her as his daughter wasn’t her biological father.
Prior to sending off her DNA for analysis, Michèle had taken a keen interest in her heritage. In fact, she’d managed to trace her supposed father’s bloodline all the way back to the 1600s. When the results of the DNA test came back, however, they were at odds with what Michèle had learned; instead, they claimed that she was around half Italian. And, understandably, the puzzled woman duly went to her nearest and dearest for answers.
But while Michèle’s mother claimed not to know anything about her daughter’s Italian ancestry, another family member appeared more clued up. You see, the Ancestry database suggested that Michèle had first cousins with an Italian surname in her hometown of Syracuse, New York. And Michèle’s aunt was able to link her niece to the strangers, too.
In fact, Michèle’s relative recalled something astonishing: when Michèle’s mom had been 18, she’d had a prom date who happened to possess the same last name as the cousins in Syracuse. And while, sadly, this man had since died, it nonetheless seemed likely that he was Michèle’s biological father.
Yet genealogist Debbie Kennett knows that Michèle’s experience is not all that uncommon. Indeed, Kennett told The Guardian that DNA testing may actually open up a “can of worms” for certain people. She added, “There have been a lot of secrets covered up in the past, and they are starting to come out.”
Revealing what happens in such cases, Kennett continued, “When people get these unexpected findings, they tend to distrust the science at first… But even close matches can only reveal so much in isolation. The DNA on its own doesn’t give the science; you need the contextual family information as well.”
As a result of such cases, then, Catherine St Clair launched the NPE Friends Facebook group in 2017. “NPE” stands for “Not Parent Expected,” with the community itself being a place that people can join after DNA testing reveals that their mothers or fathers are not who they believed they were. St Clair created the group, moreover, after she discovered that the man who had raised her was not her biological dad.
Describing how she had felt when she had unearthed her true parentage, St Clair told the New York Post in 2018, “You feel completely alone and isolated. It’s like having an infection that’s deep under your skin that keeps festering. And it’s painful, and it’s getting worse and worse. Only after it’s exposed to air can it start to heal.”
It’s safe to say, then, that some people who’ve partaken in at-home DNA testing have discovered more than they bargained for. And as it happens, the Cartellones would find themselves among that unfortunate group. Yes, after they had received the results of their individual genealogy kits, the tight-knit family came to see that they had been living a lie.
It only became clear that something was amiss, however, when Rebecca, Joseph and Jennifer’s DNA results came back in February 2019. These findings showed that while Rebecca appeared to be matched to her mother, there seemed to be less of a link with her father. In fact, it appeared that Rebecca and Joseph had no genetic makeup in common.
And when talking to Good Morning America in August 2019, Joseph revealed what had subsequently transpired. The distraught dad said, “When we looked at the results, what we immediately noticed was that there were no traces of Italian DNA in [Rebecca’s results] at all… And her DNA matched my wife’s pretty closely.”
At first, then, Joseph believed that there had been some kind of mistake with the DNA results, and this led him to call the kit’s maker. In response, though, the company explained the process that the samples underwent. And, ultimately, Joseph began to realize that there was a chance he and Rebecca weren’t related after all.
So, in order to get to the bottom of the mystery, Joseph and Rebecca took a paternity test together. And when the results of that study came back, the pair’s greatest fear was realized: they were not biologically connected at all. Joseph went on to explain to Good Morning America, “My disbelief turned quickly to shock and then ultimately to anger that this could possibly be the case.”
In an attempt to find answers to his questions, though, Joseph had to go all the way back to 1993. During that year, he and Jennifer had visited what was then named the Greater Cincinnati Institute for Reproductive Health after they had experienced difficulties conceiving. And after seeing what offers they had on the table, the couple had decided to try in vitro fertilization, or IVF.
As many will know, IVF involves an egg being fertilized with sperm in a lab environment before it is implanted inside a woman’s uterus. And before the Cartellones underwent the procedure, they had been assured that Joseph’s sperm would be used to inseminate Jennifer’s eggs. So, just what had gone wrong?
Well, in light of Rebecca’s DNA results, it appears that sperm belonging to someone else was used during the IVF process. Naturally, then, the Cartellone family felt as though they had been betrayed. Speaking at a news conference in August 2019, Joseph explained, “This has been extremely difficult for my family.”
Joseph continued, “I never would have imagined the Christmas gift of a home DNA kit would unveil this kind of abuse of our trust. For our daughter Rebecca, it’s even tougher. She’s experiencing significant emotional stress and confusion concerning her own identity.” It appeared, too, that the results had also had a major impact on the man who had previously assumed he was Rebecca’s biological father.
Speaking candidly at the news conference, Joseph said, “It’s hard to explain the shock and agony when you find out that someone you love and care for — your own daughter — is not genetically related to you… There’s a mix of anger, pain and confusion that comes along with having to accept this and having to break the news to our family.”
And while speaking about Jennifer’s reaction, Joseph revealed, “She has to deal with the fact that this clinic… fertilized her eggs with a complete stranger’s sperm and placed them in her body… She’s profoundly disappointed that she can no longer give birth to a child with both of our genetics… And that’s exactly why we sought the help of doctors… in the first place.”
So, after making their shocking discovery, Joseph and Jennifer filed a civil lawsuit against The Christ Hospital Health Network, Ovation Fertility Cincinnati and what is today called the Institute for Reproductive Health. In particular, the Cartellones alleged that the original lab that had helped them conceive Rebecca had in fact used another man’s sperm.
The law firm representing the family, Peiffer Wolf Carr & Kane, specializes in taking on fertility clinics for alleged misconduct. And while speaking at the Cartellones’ press conference, managing shareholder Joseph C. Peiffer said of the family’s case, “This is a massive betrayal of trust and an unthinkable break of trust.”
According to the firm, moreover, only one of five people could be Rebecca’s biological father – with a doctor at The Christ Hospital allegedly among these individuals. Crucially, The Christ Hospital had previously been associated with the Greater Cincinnati Institute for Reproductive Health, where Joseph and Jennifer had undergone IVF.
Commenting on Rebecca’s potential paternity, the Cartellones’ lawyer Adam Wolf told the Daily Mail, “The defense should go through their records and find whose sperm they used to create the embryo… We have no idea if this was intentional or a horrifically negligent accident. We’ve asked, but we’ve been met with radio silence.”
And as you would expect, Joseph and Jennifer had signed a contract with The Christ Hospital before the procedure went ahead. However, according to an August 2019 report by CNN, the medical establishment was withholding comment owing to the pending litigation. Instead, The Christ Hospital simply stated that it was “evaluating the allegations surrounding events alleged to have occurred in the early 1990s.”
The affiliated Institute for Reproductive Health, by contrast, issued a statement that said it hadn’t been in operation in 1994. Any possible error, then, lay at the feet of The Christ Hospital’s former lab. The message to CNN read, “Because this alleged incident occurred in The Christ Hospital’s laboratory before our practice and laboratory existed, we cannot comment on what may or may not have occurred in their laboratory.” But perhaps it’s not that straightforward.
You see, Wolf has claimed that the lab director and doctor who had previously worked at the original Greater Cincinnati Institute were now based at the newer Institute for Reproductive Health. Even so, neither of those people were named as defendants in the lawsuit, which alleges negligence and breach of contract.
According to CNN, the lawsuit also asserts that Jennifer was the victim of battery, as she hadn’t agreed to have her embryo fertilized by a stranger. With that in mind, the Cartellones were seeking financial compensation of an unknown sum; the couple have also requested the name of Rebecca’s biological dad along with his medical history.
In addition, the Cartellones are apparently eager to know if Joseph’s sperm was used elsewhere. In August 2019 Wolf told NBC-affiliated channel WCMH-TV, “If you provide sperm to create an embryo, and you find out that sperm was not used for your daughter, you have to wonder, ‘Where did your sperm go?’”
Plus, Wolf and his clients have called for a change in the way in which the fertility industry is run in the United States. The lawyer explained to the Daily Mail, “There needs to be mandatory inspections of facilities, consequences if something in the facility [goes wrong] and certification requirements for fertility clinics… In most states, you don’t need even need to be certified to run. In Ohio, you can open up a center in your basement.”
The Cartellones’ suit continues to make its way through legal proceedings, although it may be a long journey to the truth. And in the meantime, Rebecca can only wonder about who she is and whether she has further biological relatives – ones that she may not have known about if it hadn’t been for an at-home DNA test.