News / Canada

Torontonian claims to have up to 1,000 siblings through sperm donor

A Toronto filmmaker claiming to share a single sperm donor with 1,000 siblings says a similar situation could happen in Canada today.

He says the late Bertold Wiesner, an Austrian Jew who ran a fertility clinic in England, was not only his biological father, but a dad to hundreds of others.

“This story could never happen again in England, but it could happen and is happening in Canada,” said Barry Stevens.

Stevens, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, has been chronicling his journey to find his biological father, a radical scientist he once described as the “mystery masturbator.”

Over the past decade, DNA tests conducted on 19 children conceived at the London fertility clinic revealed two-thirds of them were fathered by Wiesner.

If that ratio holds true for the 1,500 children conceived in the clinic between 1943 and 1962, the number of Wiesner’s progeny could be 1,000.

David Gollancz, another of Wiesner’s biological sons, recently estimated Wiesner was making 20 sperm donations a year, according to the Daily Mail.

The consequences of mass sperm donations are complicated. They can be physical — such as when children conceived through donors share health complications — but can also be social. One scenario might see siblings, often from the same region and socioeconomic class, accidentally commit incest.

Stories of one man conceiving many children in the name of science have become commonplace in North America, where fertility technology has outpaced legislation.

Though it was 50 years ago that Wiesner was running his clinic, the laws that would prevent an identical situation now haven’t been enforced in Canada or the United States.

Earlier this month, the Conservative government scrapped Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, a regulatory agency supposed to monitor reproductive technologies. The shutdown of the agency will save taxpayers $10 million a year, but critics are questioning what will take its place to monitor the rapidly expanding — and largely lawless — fertility field.

“We no longer sell sperm in Canada. The vast majority of sperm is from the U.S.,” said Kerry Bowman, a University of Toronto bioethicist. “It’s a little unclear how that plays in Canada. All indications show it’s really not controlled.”

Stevens isn’t sure what motivated Wiesner, who died in the early 1970s, to sire so many children.

History tells us Wiesner was a rebel, a fearless experimenter and a Communist sympathizer. In the 1920s, he immigrated from Austria and set up a fertility clinic with Mary Barton, his wife.

Wiesner belonged to a club of left-wing biologists experimenting with new techniques. (The couple’s work was once described by the House of Lords as “the work of Beelzebub,” according to the Daily Mail).

“It was very much the era of eugenics,” said Stevens, 59. “People on the left supported that, too, not just on the right.

“They felt that very talented people should spread their genes, and less talented people should be discouraged from spreading their genes,” he said.

Stevens has told the story of his unusual genetic pedigree to critical acclaim. In 2001, Offspring, his documentary on the subject, was nominated for an Emmy. Bio-Dad, a continuation of the journey released in 2009, was greeted with similar fanfare.

“I think he was motivated by wanting to help families and scientific curiosity,” said Stevens of Wiesner’s dedication to dissemination.

“Who knew — maybe as a Jew he thought (expletive) to the Nazis.”

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