Seeds of Deceit: The Sperm Donor Doctor review – a disturbing, awful new true-crime trend

Last year I reviewed Our Father, a 90-minute documentary by Lucie Jourdan about a fertility doctor in Indiana who had spent 30 years secretly impregnating unwitting patients with his own sperm rather than that of their husbands or chosen donors. My overriding thought was that where there was one such doctor, there was undoubtedly another – and probably a whole lot more than that. There hasn’t, after all, been a technology invented yet that an oppressor class hasn’t found some way to use against its favourite oppressed class.

Lo, it has come to pass. In fact, Seeds of Deceit, about Dr Jan Karbaat, a Dutch pioneer in the field of artificial insemination, who covertly fathered hundreds of children via his unconsenting patients, had already made its debut at the Sundance film festival the year before Jourdan’s programme streamed on Netflix. I suspect we are at the start of a new subgenre of true-crime story and I advise everyone to lower their expectations about humanity so the despair does not overwhelm.

To murky, awful business then. The first of Seeds of Deceit’s three episodes concentrates on the mothers of what turn out to be (some of) their doctor’s children. A few have only good things to say about the man who, by whatever means, had given them the babies they longed for at a time when medical, cultural and religious norms were set against “unnatural” methods of conceiving. The Catholic church had pronounced donor insemination tantamount to adultery. The papers were full of fearful stories about single women choosing to have and raise children alone. Karbaat seemed a beacon of hope in darkness, even if he was so rough that many women were left with vaginal bleeding after their appointments.

Others immediately felt he was “creepy” and found themselves having to ignore comments, as he examined them, about their attractiveness, their vaginas, or how much “better” he would be than their husbands. Many of them were sexually assaulted by Karbaat during their inseminations. “I wanted children so badly … I was determined to endure it,” says one. Another describes him ejaculating on to her and syringing the results into her thereafter. She was anomalous only in knowing for sure that the sperm was his.

Several women grew suspicious. An employee tried to blow the whistle on the clinic when he saw Karbaat “inseminate” a patient with water. “I have to make some money,” Karbaat told him. But Karbaat convinced the health inspectorate that nothing was wrong and continued his abuses unchecked.

As with Our Father, you long for some deeper analysis to go along with the heartbreaking testimonies – to follow up, perhaps, on one of his former nurse’s comment that doctors then were “put on pedestals” and to examine the interplay between this, medical hubris, the predatory instinct, the profound misogyny that is embedded in a system that protects perverted practitioners, and the mockery that can be made of any pretensions to safeguarding when they act together.

More disturbingly, the victims’ stories become almost completely lost in the second instalment, which concentrates on the Karbaat children discovering each other and forming a loose coalition without any ill effects, resentment or even much consideration of what their biological father did to bring them about. Perhaps those who are (I would say appropriately) horrified by their origins declined to take part, but if so it has made for a strangely rose-hued account.

The third episode restores some of the balance by centring on the “superdonors” Karbaat used, again in contravention of good, legal and moral practice. These added another layer of misery to the lives of so many women and children, the numbers of whom are probably uncountable, given Karbaat’s penchant for burning medical records whenever his filing cabinets grew too full.

Is it a comfort to know that there will be many more times to get the telling of such stories right? That we will never run out of examples of men doing terrible things to women and escaping punishment for decades (or for ever – Karbaat died at the age of 89 ) because male-dominated systems mean it is never in their interests to uncover the truth? Not much.

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Seeds of Deceit: The Sperm Donor Doctor is on BBC Four on Mondays at 10pm. All episodes are available on iPlayer.

The Guardian