When retired Oregon detective Wendi Babst decided to look into her family tree, she discovered her biological father wasn’t the man who raised her.
The late Las Vegas fertility specialist Quincy Fortier was actually her father. He used his own sperm to impregnate Babst’s mother, and she wasn't the only one.
In the new HBO documentary, Baby God, filmmaker Hannah Olson tells the stories of Babst and some of her newfound half-siblings. Olson told KNPR's State of Nevada that 20 people have been connected to Fortier, and since the film was released, another five people have come forward.
Fortier was well-known in Las Vegas and named “Doctor Of The Year” by the state medical society in 1991. He died in 2006.
The pregnancies were before invitro-fertilization, Olson explained.
“It was just inserting sperm into the woman, hoping that an artificial means of insemination would be more effective than normal sexual intercourse,” she said, “Several of the women that I interviewed in the film brought sperm of their husbands to his office, assuming that’s what would be used.”
Olson wanted to know why Dr. Fortier used his own sperm and not the sperm brought him by his patients.
“My desire in making this film was to try to understand this phenomenon, because it wasn’t just Dr. Fortier who did this. Twenty-two doctors in the United States have been found to have used their own sperm,” she said.
At the time, donor sperm needed to be fresh and so donors were usually medical students or doctors, she said. And because it was before the HIV epidemic, samples weren't tested like they are now.
“When I was looking at the film, it was very important to me to see: Was this the symptom of the time because it was such a widespread phenomenon or was this something darker,” Olson said.
One doctor in the film likened donating sperm at the time to giving blood. Plus, Olson noted it wasn't something people would know about.
“So little was known about DNA that there was this presumption of anonymity. It was a crime that would never be discovered,” she said.
Now, people can spit into a vial, send it to a commercial DNA testing company and have their DNA analyzed. Olson said she was interested in what that process revealed and what it really didn't.
“A lot of the people who I interviewed in the film, who had these bombshell revelations when they did that, discovered that it’s not really possible to know yourself entirely from your saliva and your DNA,” she said.
Which, she believes, is the point of the film, that identity is more than just your cells' programming.
“I think I was interested in looking at the power of creation and at how much DNA matters. How much does where we come from matter? For me, the film was so much a process of investigating one’s identity,” she said.
And while the stories of the people fathered by Dr. Fortier are unique and something that most people won't go through, Olson believes there is something universal about the story.
“It was my real hope that the film would shed light on something more universal, which is all of us trying to figure out where we came from,” she said.
While everyone is unique, being fathered by the same man did mean the children involved had similar traits, Olson said.
“It was very strange to pop around the country and meet all these people who didn’t know each other, but I knew they shared a common biological father,” she said.
Olson used closeups in the film so the audience could see the similarities in facial expressions and mannerisms - and differences.
Because Dr. Fortier died almost 20 years ago, victims can't really seek restitution or resolution. Olson said Facebook and online groups have become a place for people to talk about the Fortier case.
Olson worked for 10 years on the PBS series "Finding Your Roots," which helped celebrities and other well-known people trace their lineage. She has done her own genealogy and is not interested in taking the DNA test.
She is concerned it might open a "pandora's box."
“I think a lot of families have more secrets than exist on the surface and I don’t want to poke the bear,” she said.
Hannah Olson, documentary filmmaker
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