It was shocking for Susan Crowder to learn that her adult daughter—conceived 45 years earlier via in vitro fertilization—was the offspring not of an anonymous medical student sperm donor, but of her own fertility doctor.
Even more shocking was the fact that nobody would do anything about it.
Crowder and her husband started IVF in 1975, after moving to the small town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Her husband, a dental surgeon, had recently learned that he was sterile, so the couple set about finding a fertility specialist. Their search led them to nearby Louisville and to Dr. Marvin Yussman, a respected OB-GYN based out of the University of Louisville School of Medicine.
Crowder said she only went to Yussman’s office twice: once for her intake appointment and once for the insemination. According to Crowder, Yussman promised that the donor sperm would come from a local med student. (In a 1980 interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, which first reported on this case, Yussman said publicly that he “exclusively” used medical student donors.) Nine months later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
Crowder says she didn’t think much about the origin of the sperm until 2019, when her daughter submitted her DNA to Ancestry.com. The search turned up a couple of half-siblings, whom they wrote off as the result of a prolific donor. Less than a month later, however, Crowder’s daughter received a call from one of the half-siblings, alerting her that she had discovered the identity of their father: Marvin Yussman. (Yussman declined to comment for this article.)
The phenomenon of doctors secretly inseminating women with their own sperm is so common that it now has its own name—fertility fraud. Dozens of cases have been discovered in recent years, as DNA testing sites have become more popular. In fact, a similar case was recently discovered just 80 miles from where Crowder was inseminated, at the Baptist Health Hospital in Lexington.
Like Crowder, the woman in Lexington claimed her doctor, Michael Zavos, promised her sperm from a local med student but instead used his own. She is currently suing Zavos, claiming he “breached the terms of their agreement by using his own sperm to fertilize her eggs.” Zavos, who is best known for claiming—without evidence—that he had implanted a cloned embryo into a human woman, previously told The Daily Beast the claims were “false and unsubstantiated.”
Fertility fraud, while frowned upon, can be surprisingly hard to prosecute. Cases are often discovered years after the relatively short statute of limitations on medical malpractice has run out and do not fit into narrowly tailored laws for other forms of fraud, according to Jody Madeira, a professor at the Indiana University-Bloomington law school.
“Quite frankly, the law hasn’t figured out what to do about it,” Madeira said. “Is this sexual assault? Is it something called fertility fraud?”
When Crowder discovered that she had been a victim of fertility fraud, she immediately reported Yussman to his employer, the University of Louisville. The school said only that it had “pursued the issue” with Yussman and that he would be retiring. (He was 83 at the time.) Yussman’s retirement letter makes no mention of the issue and the school made no public comment on it. In a statement to The Daily Beast on Thursday, the university said that Yussman’s actions, “while not illegal at the time … were not a practice we would condone then or now.”
So Crowder turned to the state medical board. She filed a complaint with the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure, alleging that Yussman had fraudulently impregnated her with his own sperm. While she was waiting to hear back from them, she says, she received a call from the head of the university’s Obstetrics and Gynecology department asking her to withdraw her complaint. “I didn’t,” she said. (The physician did not respond to requests for comment.)
The medical board interviewed Yussman, who said he had “no reason to doubt much of [Crowder’s] recollections,” according to a copy of his response to the board obtained by The Daily Beast. He admitted to inseminating Crowder and “only about a half dozen” other women with his own sperm, though he denied promising them that the sample would come from a medical student. “On very rare occasions when the donor did not show and no frozen specimen was available, I used my own sperm,” he wrote.
In response, the board recommended a “letter of concern” be directed to Yussman, but found "insufficient evidence" for any discipline. He was allowed to keep his medical license.
At her wits’ end, and at the urging of her daughter, Crowder finally went to the press. During the interview process, she was connected with Madeira, who recently helped pass a law outlawing fertility fraud in Indiana and is working on similar laws around the country. When she heard about Crowder’s case, Madeira said, “I was astonished.”
“I was astonished at what the university had said; about what the doctor had said in his statement; about what the medical board had said,” she told The Daily Beast. “It was sort of this invalidation of her feelings.”
Together, the two have started campaigning for a bill that would specially outlaw fertility fraud, giving victims more time to sue and allowing spouses and offspring to file suit, too. Madeira said this is an important step in recognizing the harm done to victims like Crowder, whom current laws too often leave out.
“Even legislatures in red states recognize that women’s reproductive choices were harmed by these doctors,” she said. “It doesn’t sit well to have harms that the law does not recognize. It does make sense to say the doctor can lie to you... and there’s nothing you can do about it.’”
Crowder has since moved to Colorado and had another child by IVF. (Her son has also participated in DNA testing, she said, but has not turned up any devious fertility doctors in his lineage.) She is separated from her husband, but remains close to her daughter.
Still, she does not appreciate when people argue that she should be grateful to Yussman, because he brought her daughter into her life.
“I don’t understand that argument. That’s not the point,” she said. “Any rape victim wouldn’t be told that.”
And while she is hesitant to take the rape victim analogy any further, she does feel Yussman’s actions were a violation—of her body, and of her trust.
“It’s a betrayal of your trust between doctor and patients that he thought it was OK to masturbate in the [next] room,” she said. “I understand someone had to do that, but it wasn’t the guy who looked me in the eye and said ‘It’s going to be a medical student.’”
“I find that so distasteful,” she added. “It gives me the creeps.”