'Such a violation': Patients of former UW doctor accused of fertility fraud grapple with uncertainty, tough choices
lizabeth Glenn knew her breast cancer diagnosis could shatter her dream of one day becoming a mother. She also knew the decision to preserve her fertility would be costly and taxing, but if she froze her eggs, she'd be getting ahead of years of cancer hormone treatments.
Over a year later, Glenn, 33, is facing a new dilemma: Should she and her husband take the risk of testing one of four frozen embryos, to see if her former obstetrician used his own semen, instead of her husband’s, to fertilize her eggs? DNA testing of an embryo could put its viability at risk, and along with it, Glenn’s chance to become a parent.
A complaint was filed with the Washington Medical Commission in April accusing Glenn’s former fertility doctor, Christopher Herndon, of using his semen to inseminate a different patient in California without her consent in 2009, a practice referred to as fertility fraud. Despite the complaint, which UW Medicine learned of after it was made public in November, Herndon continued working as a physician at the university's Reproductive Care clinic for the next five months, and was voted a Seattle Met “Top Doctor” by his peers.
Herndon resigned from UW in September. Two months later, he voluntarily surrendered his medical license.
Glenn, like many of the approximately 2,600 patients who saw Herndon while he worked at the University of Washington Medicine's Reproductive Care clinic from 2017 to 2023, was notified of the allegations against him in early December — nearly three months after he left UW Medicine.
After receiving the notification about the allegations against Herndon, Glenn described feeling violated and overwhelmed with fear. This was a common sentiment among the eight women KUOW spoke with who were at one time patients of Herndon’s.
The impact of the fertility fraud allegations against Herndon has been incredibly disconcerting for Glenn.
“If the embryos are my husband's, if the embryos are my physician’s, this is still such a violation,” she said.
While some of these women have said they are newly relieved that their pregnancy attempts under Herndon’s care failed, others are confronting the risks and reality of confirming the parentage of their children in light of his alleged fertility fraud. Even if a genetic test showed their children carried Herndon’s DNA, there is no certainty of legal recourse in Washington state, because fertility fraud currently has no criminal penalties.
Through a written statement provided by his lawyer, Herndon told KUOW he “has discharged his medical duties in the state of Washington with excellence and the highest standards of professionalism in all aspects of medical care and management.”
The statement continues, “His cooperation with the Washington Medical Commission investigation was centered on a goal to reassure the patients formerly under his care. Dr. Herndon submitted to independent polygraph testing, which conclusively supported findings of his longstanding safety. He states, in definitive terms, that there is zero probability of any substantiated allegation or evidence of professional misconduct arising from his many years of practice in the state of Washington.”
Allegations come to light
The allegations against Herndon stem from 2009, when he was a clinical fellow in training at the University of California, San Francisco.
It was there that he performed intrauterine insemination on a patient who was hoping to have a second child, using the same donor sperm that resulted in her firstborn. Instead, Herndon allegedly used his own semen without the patient’s knowledge or consent, according to the statement of allegations compiled by the Washington Medical Commission. That insemination resulted in the patient’s second child who was born in 2010.
DNA testing showed her children did not share paternity. Genetic testing and an ancestry tracking website biologically connected the woman’s second-born child to Herndon’s sibling, a private investigator uncovered, according to the statement of allegations.
In Washington, these revelations didn’t keep Herndon from seeing more patients.
Micah Matthews, deputy director of the Washington Medical Commission, said in an email that the commission was legally obligated to keep its investigation into the fertility fraud allegations against Herndon confidential until a decision was reached. Once that happened, the commission published its investigation outcome — an agreement that Herndon would voluntarily surrender his medical license — publicly online. The commission doesn’t consider Herndon’s compliance to be an admission of guilt.
Matthews said the commission could, in some cases, order an immediate license suspension if a doctor poses “an immediate threat to the public health and safety.” It did not do so in Herndon’s case.
Susan Gregg, a spokesperson for UW Medicine, said by email that the university was “not made aware of the allegations against Herndon until [the decision] was released by the Washington Medical Commission” in late November. By then, Herndon had already resigned.
After learning of the allegations, UW Medicine launched an internal investigation, which remains ongoing, Gregg said. UW Medicine also opened a dedicated phone line for any of Herndon’s former patients to reach out with questions. As of Tuesday, around 200 former patients have called the line.
UW Medicine has offered free genetic testing to all of Herndon’s former patients. So far, 80 women have asked for testing. Some patients have requested a chain of custody report, a document that shows who handled their genetic material. Gregg also said social workers are available for patients.
In a statement, UW Medicine said it has safeguards against fertility fraud, including multiple identity checks for patients and their biological material, careful chain of custody practices, and separate labs for egg and sperm specimens. Referencing the allegations against Herndon, Gregg said UW Medicine has “no indication that any similar events occurred” at its fertility clinic.
‘We entrusted him with our dreams’
Elizabeth Glenn, Herndon’s former patient, decided to take on the risk of embryo testing. She and her husband Nick said they “just need to know for sure” that the paternity of their future children won’t be Herndon’s.
The choice to pursue reproductive preservation in the first place was made on the heels of a breast cancer diagnosis when Glenn was 31. Four of her eggs were extracted, fertilized, and frozen with a plan to implant them after her cancer treatments had concluded.
“I do not have the luxury of doing multiple rounds of [in vitro fertilization],” Glenn said by email. “I am on hormone therapy for the next five years as part of my cancer treatments. The embryos in storage are realistically my only chance at having a child.”
A nurse practitioner with UW explained to Glenn via email that testing would require the embryos to be rewarmed, biopsied, and refrozen, and then rewarmed again before a possible transfer into her uterus. This intensive process puts the embryo viability at risk and shrinks her expected pregnancy success rate by anywhere between 15% to 45%. It’s a risk many who are eager to have children may not want to take.
The nurse practitioner said the risk to Glenn’s embryos is an important consideration, especially when taking into account that their chain of custody is secure and their embryology lab does not involve the physicians.
But these reassurances do little for Glenn, who is looking for peace of mind. She said she’s thought of ending her cancer treatments due to her new mistrust of doctors.
“I don't want anyone touching me. No more doctors,” Glenn said.
And she doesn’t know how or if she’ll finish her in vitro fertilization treatments.
“How will I get to a point where I say, ‘I'm ready to do the second half of this,’ which includes more shots, more exams, more procedures?” Glenn said. “And if not, then [Herndon] decided whether or not I was going to have children.”
Two more of Herndon’s former patients spoke with KUOW on the condition of anonymity.
The first former patient said news of the allegations against Herndon has been difficult to bear. He performed her egg retrieval this year.
“I can’t get these fertility years back,” she said by email. “Even if I start all over, I’m older and my eggs are older. And, starting over still doesn’t erase what happened — the pain, the loss, the trauma.”
The second former patient said there should be both legal and professional consequences. She said lawmakers should move to outlaw fertility fraud, which is already illegal in nine states, including California.
“If you are a fertility doctor, and you choose to intercept the process and put your sperm in instead of the patient's chosen sperm, then you [should] get locked up, the end,” she said.
Washington patients and advocates call for legislation
Washington legislators have tried several times to make fertility fraud illegal. Efforts have failed, in part due to scrutiny over how to enact such a criminal penalty: Some lawmakers think it should be classified as rape, while others think it should fall under assault.
In 2021, state Sen. Derek Stanford (D-Bothell) introduced Senate Bill 5348, after a victim of fertility fraud shared their experience with him. The bill would have made false representation in assisted reproduction a crime and created a new pathway for victims to file suit in civil court. Currently, the only legal recourse for victims is to sue under the Consumer Protection Act, said a spokesperson from Stanford’s office. Stanford’s bill also would have made fertility fraud sufficient cause to revoke a doctor’s medical license.
In 2022, the bill had a committee hearing where criminal penalties and the ability to sue in civil court were removed. The bill stalled after that.
Stanford said he plans to introduce a new bill for victims of fertility fraud in the upcoming session.
Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) has worked for several years to amend fertility fraud protections under House Bill 1300, which would make fertility fraud a form of criminal assault. In addition, Rep. Orwall is asking the Department of Health to create a workgroup that would study fertility fraud in the state and make recommendations to the governor and legislature on how to stop it.
This is promising for Glenn and other former patients of Herndon’s.
“I want to hold someone accountable, but I don’t know the actual legal standing of any of this which has been very frustrating,” Glenn said.
Traci Portugal, a Washington-based advocate for victims of fertility fraud, supports the work Rep. Orwall is doing, but she’s frustrated by the sluggish progress being made in Olympia.
“We have extensive regulations in place for industries (airplane and auto) that transport human beings all over the world,” Portugal said by email. “Yet we only have ‘guidelines’ for an industry that is responsible for making human beings all over the world.”
The children created as the result of fertility fraud often don't know until they are tested due to medical concerns, or through an ancestry check through services like 23andMe. That was the case for Portugal, who in 2019 discovered that she was the product of fertility fraud.
Portugal created the website DonorDeceived.org to serve as a resource for others affected by fertility fraud. The website provides links to mental health and legal groups and services, and stories of people harmed by fertility fraud.
Beyond UW, other Seattle area fertility clinics and their physicians are grappling with the news in their own way.
Lora Shahine, a doctor with Pacific Northwest Fertility, said she was shocked and confused when she learned of the allegations against Herndon. She said patients entrust their doctors to help them build their families.
“It’s not just my feelings — I worry about how [this is] going to affect anybody in the fertility community,” she said.
Pacific Northwest Fertility, where Shahine has practiced since 2009, tried to reassure patients that the clinic has systems in place to guarantee that the right specimens are going to the right patients.
For its part, the University of California San Francisco Health notified its patients of the allegations against Herndon on Dec. 7.
In a statement, a spokesperson for UCSF Health said as soon as it learned about the allegations against Herndon, it “immediately hired an outside law firm to conduct a thorough and independent investigation.” The health organization is looking into any complaints against Herndon and offering support to former intrauterine insemination patients including counseling and free genetic testing.
“The investigation is ongoing, and we remain focused on the health and wellbeing of our patients,” the statement reads. “The actions Dr. Herndon is accused of are inexcusable and we are exploring all legal options against him, including potential civil and criminal actions.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was amended on Feb. 22 to correct the hometown of Rep. Orwall from Kent to Des Moines.