WOODINVILLE, Wash. — Like millions of others worldwide, Traci Portugal of Woodinville took a home DNA test kit last year. However, her results were unexpected and disturbing.
Portugal says a 23andMe test revealed her biological father is the fertility doctor who treated her mother decades ago.
Instead of the dad who raised her, the tests pointed her to Dr. Gary Vandenberg in California as her biological father. He still has an active medical license.
Portugal is accusing the doctor of fertility fraud – using his sperm on her unknowing mother — during treatment more than 40 years ago. But she found there’s nothing the law can do to hold the doctor accountable now.
“Even though it wasn’t done directly to me - I’m the result of it. That man is in me, and I carry that in me. I do, I feel very violated,” Portugal said.
She took a 23andMe test last year in hopes of finding answers to medical questions. Instead, the test brought up unfamiliar names in her family tree.
“I remember mentioning it to my mom, ‘Oh all these people are popping up’ and just kind of laughed it all off. And then a few days later my mom called and said she needed to talk,” Portugal said.
Back in the 1970s, Portugal’s mom and dad struggled to conceive and tried some fertility treatments.
For the first time, Portugal learned her parents were told their fertility treatment would use a mix of her father’s sperm and anonymous donor sperm.
“My mother just said, we just assumed it worked. We loved you, and we were just so happy to have a child,” Portugal said.
But the tests indicated through family trees that Dr. Gary Vandenberg was her biological father. When Portugal made this discovery in the fall of 2019, he was still practicing as an OBGYN in the San Diego area where Portugal was born.
“I remember texting my mom the name of the doctor, and I said, does his name sound familiar?” Portugal said.
“She goes, yes - he was my OBGYN, he was my infertility doctor,” Portugal said.
Vandenberg’s signature is on Portugal’s birth certificate. She says at first, the implication didn’t click. Then slowly, she put together why her mother’s infertility doctor would show up on her family tree as her biological father.
“You’re raised on the belief that you were created out of love by your parents, and you weren’t. You were created by a man that went into a room next door, did his business into a cup, and then lied about it. Then, in a very intimate way, went and put himself inside my mother,” Portugal said, tearing up.
The discovery launched her into darkness.
“When I first found out - I was very suicidal. I did not want this existence. I still have those days. My husband had to take off work and stay home quite a bit to make sure I didn’t do anything to myself,” she said, wiping away tears.
Portugal wrote Vandenberg a letter, then called his office.
“I was so desperate for answers, it was eating me alive. I couldn’t function,” she said.
“They put me though,” Portugal said. “He seemed nice. I asked him, does this sound right? And he said oh yeah, yeah. I donated a lot back then.”
“Donated a lot back then” – Portugal said she didn’t press on that line. Instead, they talked a little about medical history.
“But then he was kind of done with the conversation. He didn’t want to talk further and said good luck in life. And was abruptly done,” Portugal said.
It left her with a mountain of unanswered questions. She wrote more letters and kept calling.
“Trying to find a place to just forgive and understand,” she said.
Finally, Portugal filed a complaint against Vandenberg with the Medical Board of California. His medical license is still listed as “active” until March 2021.
The Medical Board of California would not comment on specific cases, saying in an email, “The Board is unable to provide information pertaining to its complaints and investigations as both are confidential by law.”
KIRO7′s Deedee Sun tried to reach Vandenberg directly. But in the past year since Portugal made the discovery, his practice has closed. His office and home numbers are disconnected. You can still find a cached version of the website for his practice.
Sun reached out and spoke to two of Vandenberg’s sons, and asked them both to pass on a message offering Vandenberg a chance to share his side of the story, but got no response.
In struggling to find answers, Portugal discovered she’s far from alone. She created a website, donordeceived.org, to compile lists of known cases and resources for others making similar discoveries.
An ongoing lawsuit tells a similar story of another Washington family (represented by firm Walker, Heye, Meehan, & Eisinger in Richland, WA) who is suing Dr. Gerald Mortimer in Idaho.
According to the lawsuit, “Dr. Mortimer also admitted he used his own semen a number of times during his almost 30-year practice… to inseminate other patients who were having fertility problems.”
Other cases have made national headlines.
Dr. Paul Jones of Colorado is accused of conceiving nearly a dozen children. Families who made that discovery sued in 2019.
Dr. Donald Cline of Indiana was convicted in 2017 of using his sperm on unknowing women. His known biological children now number around fifty.
Indiana University Bloomington law professor Jody Madeira says these doctors, in the deepest sense, breach the first tenant of the Hippocratic oath – “do no harm.”
“That’s grossly unethical conduct that we’re talking about here,” Madeira said in a Zoom call.
Last year, Madeira helped Indiana pass a law against fertility fraud, making it a felony to “misrepresent human reproductive material.”
Texas, Colorado, and Florida have passed their own versions of the law in the past few years. California has a similar, weaker law from 1996.
But there’s nothing in Washington State.
“I was shocked,” Portugal said.
“Would you say there is not enough legally to hold these doctors accountable?” Sun asked Madeira.
“I would say states without fertility fraud laws, accountability is definitely a question,” Madeira said. “This discovery so many decades later is falling through gaps in the law,” she said.
Portugal said she looked into a lawsuit but found that while her parents would have some legal standing, she -- the offspring -- had no options. And her mother is unwilling to take the case to court.
“She was saying, I don’t believe in these tests. I think they’re wrong. I still think you’re your dad’s daughter,” Portugal said.
As for the dad who raised her, he died suddenly from a stroke when she was sixteen.
“He was my father, but it’s like, did he know? When I grew up and obviously didn’t look like him and was really tall, did he start to wonder? Did that impact how he felt about me?” Portugal said.
She said what she wouldn’t give to have him with her again, even for just a moment.
“To have him back right now and have him tell me, it doesn’t matter. I love you,” Portugal said.
The statute of limitations in Washington state for fraud is only three years.
State Senator Derek Stanford, who just won re
-election, says he is drafting legislation on fertility fraud and plans to introduce a bill next session.
Stanford said in an email, “I want to be sure that we have clear legal accountability any time a medical professional defrauds or lies to a patient.”
The “Right to Know” group tracks fertility fraud laws and is working with lawmakers in multiple states to get legislation passed.
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