Is deceased Cincinnati fertility doctor the missing link for these newly discovered half-siblings?

Questions follow DNA family histories
Dr. Stephen Hornstein in 1979
Posted at 5:00 AM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 21:34:20-05

CINCINNATI — Carrie Lauterbach said she didn't think much about her biological father for most of her childhood and teenage years.

He was an unidentified sperm donor, part of her mother's fertility treatments in the 1970s, said Lauterbach, a married school nurse raising two children of her own near Dayton.

"I would just shrug it off because I saw my dad as my real dad," Lauterbach said. "He was just a sperm donor."

Lauterbach told the WCPO 9 I-Team she is the younger of two daughters born as a result of her mother's fertility procedures.

"For (my mother), it was a miracle that she had me," Lauterbach said. "She's thankful every day that she was able to have my sister and I."

But during the last few months, Lauterbach said, her family's story has taken a stunning twist.

Lauterbach said her family history reports from Ancestry.comand 23andMe show she has previously unknown half-siblings who had also provided DNA for analysis.

The DNA family history reports for her and two additional individuals show up to seven people are identified as close family or half or full siblings, according to records the half-siblings provided to the I-Team.

"You just don't believe it," Lauterbach said. "How can it be?"

The half-siblings said they believe their biological father is Dr. Stephen Hornstein, a prominent Cincinnati obstetrician who died in 2008.

Lauterbach said Hornstein was her mother's fertility doctor.

There is no definitive evidence that identifies Hornstein as their biological father, and the half-siblings said they haven't asked Hornstein's children to compare their DNA to determine if they have the same biological father.

The I-Team's investigation focused on circumstantial evidence collected and provided by three half-siblings, along with our own research and information shared by members of the Hornstein family.

We also examined the impact DNA analysis has had on families around the world as they discover previously unknown relatives, from siblings to parents to distant cousins.

While no definitive evidence identifies Hornstein as the half-siblings' father or indicates that he artificially inseminated patients without consent, the half-siblings' discovery of each other and their suspicion that Hornstein is their biological father prompted us to do some research. It turns out that if a fertility doctor inseminates a woman with his sperm without her consent, it's not a crime in 46 states, including Ohio and Kentucky.

But efforts are under way in Ohio to change that. Lawmakers are working on a bill similar to one in Indiana.

"This should be a criminal act," Lauterbach said.

Hornstein's son, Mark, a fertility doctor in Boston, confirmed to the I-Team that he shared his father's medical history with two of the half-siblings.

In a written statement to the I-Team, Mark Hornstein said: "We were shocked and saddened to learn about these revelations. We extend our heartfelt compassion and apologies to everyone affected by these events."

Carrie Lauterbach on Zoom
Carrie Lauterbach on Zoom

Stories have been shared across the country in which people who wanted to discover their roots and reconnect with unknown relatives soon learned that their biological fathers were the fertility doctors who treated their mothers decades ago.

Lauterbach decided to go public, but one of her half-siblings declined to be identified by name. The I-Team agreed to not identify the Cincinnati-area woman, but she reviewed records she had confirming her story.

The unidentified half-sibling and Lauterbach said their mothers told them that they were unaware of their sperm donor's identity, but they did not consent to Stephen Hornstein being the donor.

More connections

A third half-sibling, Don Dwinell, got his DNA analysis in the spring of 2020.

"It opened up a Pandora's box," Dwinell said.

Unidentified half-sibling DNA matches discovered by 23andMe
Unidentified half-sibling DNA matches discovered by 23andMe

Dwinell said he received a message on March 30, 2020, from Alex Hornstein, who identified himself as Stephen Hornstein's first cousin.

"You are very high on my list of DNA matches, indicating a 90%-plus probability that we are related at least at 2nd cousin level," wrote Alex Hornstein in a message Dwinell shared with the I-Team.

Dwinell, an IT specialist in Texas, told Alex he was from Cincinnati.

"Don - Wow and wow again! Given the information you provided (Cincinnati), I am certain that your parents had fertility issues and that they, or your mother, sought IVF treatment," Alex wrote April 2, 2020, in a message to Dwinell. "We are definitely related, 2nd cousin."

They discussed Dr. Hornstein.

Alex told Dwinell to "do a Google search" on Stephen, who was an "extra-ordinary man."

Dr. Hornstein was born in Hungary, and survived the Holocaust. His wife, Lusia, was also a Holocaust survivor.

In 1991, Stephen and Lusia shared their life stories in a series of recorded interviews archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

The book At the Fire's Center documents the journey of the Hornsteins and their friends Paul and Anna Ornstein from the terror of Nazi concentration camps to their lives in America, where they achieved great success.

In 1996, Dr. Hornstein received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Cincinnati Ob-Gyn Society.

Dwinell told Alex that he felt like a guest who received surprising paternity news on the once-popular Maury Povich talk show.

"You definitely have the Hornstein sense of humor," Alex wrote in an April 2 email to Dwinell.

"It was surreal," Dwinell told the I-Team.

Alex Hornstein has not responded to the I-Team's emails or a phone message requesting a comment for this story.

Dwinell's DNA family history arrived after the deaths of his parents. The records revealed to him for the first time that his dad is not his biological father.

"If (Dr. Hornstein) misled them in any way, then there's some wrong that has been done," Dwinell said. "But I'm not sure what you do about it."

The push for reform

In August 2018, Indianapolis physician Donald Cline surrendered his license to practice medicine, according to our sister station WRTV in Indianapolis.

The action followed the former fertility doctor's admission that he had used his own sperm to impregnate dozens of his patients, according to news reports.

Cline pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to investigators about his actions.

In May 2019, Indiana became the first state to make it a crime for doctors to use their own sperm in treatment without their patients' prior knowledge and consent.

Texas, Florida and Colorado are the only other states that have laws specifically outlawing doctors from using their own sperm to impregnate patients without their consent, the I-Team found during a review of published news and research reports on fertility fraud.

Indiana University Professor Jody Madeira on Zoom
Indiana University Professor Jody Madeira on Zoom

"The Indiana approach was basically to create a civil and criminal cause of action for fertility fraud and, importantly, the criminal cause of action is called 'fertility fraud,'" said Jody Madeira, an Indiana University law professor.

Under Indiana's Fertility Fraud and Deception Law, physicians can be charged with a level 6 felony if they use their own sperm in fertility procedures without patient consent.

Victims of fertility fraud -- the mother, their spouse, surviving spouse or child -- can sue for up to $10,000 in damages.

They can file a lawsuit up to 20 years after the fertility procedure, up to 10 years after the child's 18th birthday, or within five years after they discover through DNA analysis and medical records that the crime occurred, according to the law.

According to the Cleveland Clinic's website, a DNA paternity test is "nearly 100% accurate at determining whether a man is another person’s biological father."

The Indiana law doesn't require accused physicians to take a DNA test.

"I'm not aware of a single case where a doctor has actually volunteered to take a DNA test," Madeira said.

Madeira said it's also "ambiguous" that courts might force an accused fertility doctor to take a DNA test.

"There's not much precedent on that," Madeira said.

Ohio Rep. Jena Powell is the primary sponsor of a bill similar to Indiana's law.

House Bill 64 makes fertility fraud a third-degree felony. It also bars prosecution unless the charge is filed within 10 years of the offense.

On Feb. 25, Powell presented HB 64 to the House Criminal Justice Committee.

Ohio Rep. Jena Powell on Zoom
Ohio Rep. Jena Powell on Zoom

"Unfortunately, nationwide we're seeing a rise in fertility fraud cases," Powell said. "This is where I think states need to pick up the ball and say, 'Look, we need to insure that everyone has a safe way to have a family.'"

Like the Indiana law, HB 64 allows the mother, their spouse, surviving spouse or child to sue the doctor and receive up to $10,000 in damages.

Victims who win their lawsuits are entitled to "reimbursement for the cost of the assisted reproduction procedure," which is similar to parts of the Indiana law.

"It's just something that needs to be addressed," said Betsie Norris, Executive Director of Adoption Network Cleveland, a leading supporter of the legislation. "Now that there is an Ohio case, and there are people who are willing to speak out and show what has happened, I think this gives it a lot more legs."

Betsie Norris on Zoom
Betsie Norris on Zoom

In response to sometimes startling DNA disclosures, Norris said Adoption Network Cleveland started a virtual support group for people who have experienced "DNA surprises."

"Just meeting other people that have had a similar experience, there's nothing that can match that, really," Norris said.

Unexpected connections

For Carrie Lauterbach, a married mother of two, the connections with her unexpected half siblings have been bittersweet.

The discovery brought a lot of pain and anger, she said, but it also allowed her to find family that have informed and comforted her on this journey, especially the half-sibling who still lives near Cincinnati.

"To me, she's been a blessing," Lauterbach said. "I'm very thankful she found me."

The half-sibling who connected so much with Lauterbach said she has not been able to reach the others who appeared in her DNA family history, including a woman who lives in the Midwest.

"She looks just like my sister," the woman said.

According to the half-sibling, the sister she grew up with is identified on her DNA family history reports as her "full" sister, which means they have the same biological parents.

She said it's "heartwarming that (the Hornsteins) have acknowledged that we're out there."

All of the half-siblings who spoke with us said they don't want anything specific from the Hornstein family.

“Part of the reason we did this was to find out if other people share our story,” Lauterbach said.

Although Lauterbach indicated it would be nice to compare the half-siblings' DNA to the DNA of Stephen Hornstein's children to "close that chapter."

"I think they're probably trying to understand the situation themselves and trying to make sense of it," Lauterbach said. "I certainly hope that he continues to be remembered by the people who love him the way they've always remembered him."

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