NPR describes its new podcast, Sick, as “an investigative podcast about what goes wrong in the places meant to keep us healthy. Award-winning journalists … dig deep to share shocking personal stories of medical injustices and hold accountable the people and institutions meant to care for us.”
The podcast will conduct a deep investigation into cases of medical malpractice. The first season, which debuted in October, focuses on the case of an Indiana fertility specialist who unknowingly impregnated women with his sperm—a fact discovered years later by the resulting children performing commercial ancestry tests.
Dr. Donald Cline was a fertility doctor who operated a clinic near Indianapolis throughout the ’70s and ’80s. He performed insemination procedures for hundreds of women and couples. Many of these women were told that they were receiving donor sperm from young doctors at nearby hospitals; many of these women went on to have successful pregnancies. Years later, some of these sons and daughters used commercial DNA ancestry services and the results were astounding. They found a startlingly high number of half-siblings in their local area. Many also realized that they were being genetically matched to relatives of Dr. Cline. Investigations prompted by these findings revealed that Dr. Cline had impregnated these, and possibly many more, women with his own sperm.
One of the most troubling elements of the case involving Dr. Cline is the fact that it is not the only one. In the 1990s, federal law enforcement investigated Cecil B. Johnson, a fertility doctor in Virginia who used his sperm to artificially inseminate his patients. Johnson fathered as many as 75 children doing so, but due to the fact that no statutes governed this behavior, he faced no criminal charges.
In addition to diving into the case of Dr. Cline, Sick looks at the fertility industry in the United States as a whole. It examines the lack of oversight and regulation that currently exists, how fertility clinics are largely left to self-regulate, and the dangers that this situation still may pose to patients.
After the scandal involving Dr. Cline came to light, a group of victims lobbied the Indiana State Legislature to pass legislation to prevent what happened to them happening elsewhere in the state. This May, the governor of Indiana signed a bill into law that strengthens the penalties for doctors and other health care providers who use misuse donor eggs and sperm. The law makes it a level six felony if someone makes a misrepresentation involving a medical procedure, medical device or drug, and human reproductive material.
Producers of the podcast are planning a second season of the show, but as of the time of this writing have not yet selected a topic that they wish to focus upon.
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