Unpleasant surprises regarding the parentage of one’s child are nothing new. Anyone who’s watched an episode or two of the Maury show will have witnessed their aftermath, and clips of men reacting to the news that they are or are not the father continue to delight audiences today. It’s hard not to chuckle at these videos, and we do so feeling confident that these distressing circumstances could never affect us. That sort of thing only happens to those people – trashy, over-the-top people; the type who don’t practice safe sex; the type who go on reality TV shows.
As humorous as these videos are, when you stop and think about it, there really wouldn’t be anything funny about finding out that the sire of your baby isn’t whom you expected him to be. In fact, it sounds downright depressing. But what if the mix-up weren’t the outcome of a mistake, but deliberate deception? And what if the person responsible had been someone responsible for your well-being?
That’s exactly what happened to the patients of Cecil Jacobson. He worked as a fertility doctor in Vienna, Virginia, running his own practice called the Reproductive Genetics Clinic, which he’d opened in 1976. Women came to Jacobson when they were unable to conceive, and he was considered to be something of a last resort. And sure enough, his patients would have success, becoming pregnant when they’d had no luck previously.
Unfortunately, the excitement didn’t always last. Jacobson would give women the good news, and then later, often after many months of preparation, things would go wrong. The patient would miscarry, the fetus having been “reabsorbed” into her body – or at least, that’s what Jacobson would say, all the while continuing to collect his fees. These failures didn’t spell the end, though; the doctor would encourage his patients to keep on trying, starting the whole process over from the beginning.
One patient went through the Jacobson cycle of pregnancy, miscarriage, “reabsorption” a total of seven times, costing her $4,500, which would be about $8,000 today. Another was told by Jacobson that he could see her baby sucking its thumb on a sonogram; it, too, was ultimately another victim of reabsorption. In a different instance, he said to a woman who miscarried that “God wants you to have a baby,” after she admitted to dreaming about one during her supposed pregnancy.
Another patient was informed she was expecting twins after a sonogram, but Jacobson later told her that the fetuses had died and would be reabsorbed. Rather than calming the mother, the idea of her body “cannibalizing” the babies horrified her, and she decided to get a second opinion from her usual physician, who found that what Jacobson had identified as fetuses were actually benign tumors.
As it turned out, her situation wasn’t exceptional. Many of the patients whom Dr. Jacobson was treating as pregnant weren’t with child at all; instead, he was injecting them with large doses of hormones to make them appear pregnant, and when the normal hallmarks failed to appear, Jacobson would simply explain it away as being a miscarriage and reabsorption – often without even physically examining the patients. He subjected these women to the false hope of finally conceiving, strung them along, then devastated them with news of a miscarriage, over and over again, simply to increase profits.
That wasn’t all, though.
Some of Jacobson’s patients did, in fact, legitimately become pregnant. Another service that was offered by the Reproductive Genetics Clinic was artificial insemination. Some patients chose to use their significant other’s sperm, while many elected to go with anonymous donors, and Jacobson assured them that the men would be matched to the mother’s specifications – resembling her husband, being the same religion, or other desired attributes.
One couple noticed something amiss, though; when their daughter was born, supposedly using the patient’s husband’s sperm, she didn’t look much like him. Instead, she resembled someone else: Cecil Jacobson. Eventually, several families got together and had DNA testing performed on their children, which confirmed that Jacobson was their biological father. This meant that he had substituted his own sperm for that provided by the patients’ husbands or anonymous donors – assuming there had ever actually been any. All in all, testing suggested that Jacobson may have fathered as many as 75 children, and seven families decided to sue in 1992.
Cecil Jacobson arriving at court
There was no law against Dr. Jacobson’s specific actions, but prosecutors were determined to find justice for the women he’d lied to and the pain he had caused. Eventually, they decided to build a case around fraud, since Jacobson had made appointments over the phone and billed his patients through the mail.
11 parents, whose 15 children were all fathered by Jacobson without their knowledge or consent, testified in the trial to discuss what they endured at his hands. The prosecution also called Dr. Marian Damewood, a gynecologist at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, who told the jury that Jacobson’s frequent claim to patients – that their fetuses had been reabsorbed – was “just unthinkable,” because “structures with bones don’t reabsorb.” Another professional witness for the prosecution, George Annas, a professor of Health Law at Boston University School of Medicine, said that in terms of Jacobson telling women they were pregnant when they weren’t, his own belief in what he was saying could be relevant. “If he didn’t, then it’s fraud if he billed them,” Annas testified. “If he believed it, it’s just incompetence.” Three receptionists and a lab technician who worked for Jacobson testified that there had never been any anonymous donors, either.
The doctor was defended by James Tate, who spoke in favor of his client’s abilities. “If Dr. Jacobson said she was pregnant, then she was pregnant,” he said with regard to the woman whose tumors had been mischaracterized as fetuses. The defense also produced some patients who were satisfied with Jacobson’s work. All they’d asked for was a healthy baby, and the fact that the sperm had come from their physician and not an anonymous donor mattered little to them. “I wanted children, and that's what I got,” said one mother.
In the end, Cecil Jacobson was found guilty of 52 counts of fraud as well as a count of perjury. The prosecution had sought 10 years of prison time, but the convicted asked the judge to reduce it “because a sentence of this extent is nearly a life sentence,” despite being only 55. The request was granted, and the doctor was given just five years in prison. He was also ordered to pay $77,805 to the court and $39,000 in restitution to his victims. The judge on the case, James Cacheris, said his ruling was influenced by having received almost 100 letters from people who suffered as a result of Jacobson’s actions.
When asked how he felt about the verdict, Jacobson said, “I'm in shock, I really am. I spent my life trying to help women have children. If I felt I was a criminal or broke the law, I would never have done it.” A former patient, on the other hand, said that “no amount of time would have been enough for him.” Dr. Jacobson’s sentence was upheld on appeal, and his medical license was revoked.
After the story became well-known nationally, it became the subject of several media adaptations. Two years after Jacobson’s sentencing, a book was published about the case, called “Babymaker: Fertility, Fraud and the Fall of Doctor Cecil Jacobson” by Rick Nelson. A movie was also released that year, entitled “Seeds of Deception.” Even Saturday Night Live referenced the story with a skit called “My 75 Kids” where John Goodman plays Cecil Jacobson, who has been sentenced to assume guardianship of all the children he fathered.
It’s hard to identify a single most disturbing element of this case. Maybe the violation of the trust between a doctor and patient, or the relatively light sentence Jacobson received. Or, perhaps, it’s the fact that this story is not unique. Incredibly, there are at least two more examples of doctors committing the same crime – Donald Cline, who was convicted in 2017 but received no jail time, and Norman Barwin, who has not yet been brought to trial.
For me, the biggest question is… why? Why have multiple men done this? Is it something they take some kind of sexual or psychological pleasure in? I suspect I’ll never know the real answer, but I’m OK with letting some things remain a mystery. Thankfully, my parentage is not one.