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A North Little Rock family has filed a lawsuit against a doctor, alleging that the physician used his own sperm without the family's knowledge during a 1978 fertility procedure.

The child born after that procedure -- Matthew Smith, now 40 -- has joined his parents, Rebecca Ellen Smith and Steven W. Smith, in a civil lawsuit against Dr. Gary Phillip Wood, an obstetrician-gynecologist.

Genetic testing pursued through a genealogy website led the younger Smith to have doubts about his paternity, and family connections shown on the site led him to suspect that the doctor is his biological father, he said.

"It was kind of Pandora's box," Matthew Smith said in an interview at his attorney's office last week. "It had been opened, but I was somewhat trying to just shove it back in, just not address it."

The family's lawsuit was filed under seal in Pulaski County Circuit Court in October, and its associated complaint was obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The petition seeks unspecified damages and asks for a jury trial.

Wood didn't immediately return phone and email messages requesting comment on the lawsuit.

In an email exchange with Matthew Smith, Wood rejected the suggestion that he could be the North Little Rock man's father. The newspaper reviewed the emails after its interview with the Smiths.

"What you are suggesting is simply not possible because 1) it would be unethical and 2) I had a vasectomy after my last child was born in 1970," Wood wrote to Matthew Smith in April.

The physician also declined to take a DNA test that Matthew Smith suggested, writing that "genealogy sites are notorious in medical circles ... for providing very questionable information."

Matthew Smith had written to the doctor to explain that a genealogy site matched his own DNA to what the site said were likely first and second cousins, who also showed family connections to the doctor that handled the Smith couple's fertility treatment.

The lawsuit's accusations mirror reports of incidents across the U.S. and Europe, in which the advent of easy DNA testing paired with internet connectivity has led to surprising, sometimes shocking discoveries.

For example, in high-profile Indiana and Texas cases, fertility doctors were found to have used their own sperm in place of that of a purported donor. The Indiana case involved dozens of children.

This year, a "fertility fraud" statute was signed into law in Indiana, which includes civil and criminal provisions regarding "misrepresentation" involving human reproductive material.

NO CRIME

The Smiths have approached law enforcement agencies about their situation, but they said they were told there aren't grounds for a criminal complaint under current Arkansas law. Police did not take a formal report, they said.

"The main thing is they're looking for some type of accountability," said Paul Young, an attorney from the Hale & Young firm, which is representing the family.

Their lawsuit says that the elder Smiths, now both 70, approached Wood to help resolve problems conceiving a child. Their intent was for the doctor to use the couple's genetic material during an insemination procedure.

Attorneys wrote in the complaint that the Smiths never discussed other options, such as the use of the doctor's sperm, and that they wouldn't have agreed to a different arrangement.

It never occurred to the parents that the baby born the next January might not be their biological son, they said. They assumed that he looked most like his mother's side of the family, Rebecca Smith said Wednesday.

"It's really difficult, because we're so proud of Matthew. ... We couldn't love him any more [than we do]," she said in an interview.

Matthew Smith, who had begun digging into his heritage last year after seeing relatives discuss his great-grandfather on Facebook, said he initially shrugged off what appeared to be a genetic mismatch with the man who raised him.

The situation, however, continued to bother him. Eventually he confronted his mother, whom he first thought might have had an extramarital affair, and began to look for other connections.

"It wasn't like an all of a sudden, eureka moment. It was putting this piece and this piece together, and just trying to process it," he said.

Via email, he reached out to Wood several times, and the doctor responded, writing in part that "A father is much more than DNA. I would suggest that perhaps you should enjoy the father you have.

"... I guess your quest is similar to people who were adopted as infants and later seek to find their birth mother. That rarely ends well," Wood wrote.

Arkansas State Medical Board records show no disciplinary actions against Wood. His license expires at the end of this year and lists an address in Cancun, Mexico, and an inactive phone number.

The family's attorneys, which also include Darryl E. "Chip" Baker of the Baker Schulze Murphy law firm, say a complaint has recently been filed with the medical board, which oversees the practice of medicine in the state.

The Smiths say they remain close, though the situation has been "a shock" that's been tough on Matthew, a Marine Corps veteran.

Matthew Smith hopes the lawsuit will someday lead to changes in state law. Also, he has a 13-month-old son who once spent weeks in a cardiovascular intensive-care unit, and he is eager to learn more about their genetic background.

"I don't know how many doctors have asked me, 'Is there any family history of heart problems?' And I don't know," he says.

'THOUSAND-PIECE PUZZLE'

Cases involving similar allegations to the Smiths' often include a mention of the discovery of possible relatives through at-home genetic testing.

That's how Dallas resident Eve Wiley discovered that her biological father was her mother's fertility doctor, not the anonymous sperm donor her mother requested, according to reports.

First introduced in the mid-2000s, at-home genetic testing services through companies such as Ancestry.com or 23andMe have grown in popularity, especially as they have become more affordable. Many cost less than $100.

The tests work by taking a small fluid sample -- often saliva -- and analyzing the sample to produce a genetic report with information about health, hereditary factors or family connections.

Sarah Huguenard, a genetic counselor with Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says her expertise is in genetic testing for health, not ancestry, but generally at-home tests tend to be less sensitive than those used by clinicians.

"[At-home tests are] not looking for all of the changes that are possible [in genes]," she said. "Information you're getting with a lot of these tests is just one piece in a thousand-piece puzzle."

Patients' results from commercial tests sometimes show different information about mutations than tests run by medical professionals or trained researchers, she said. For that reason, genetic counselors often recommend repeating tests taken at home in a clinical environment.

"In the case that you're talking about ... I would say it's probably if you repeated that test, in a reliable setting, I would imagine you'd probably find the same results, most likely. But I think it would be fair to want to do so," she said.

DNA testing in clinical settings has improved in reliability, specificity and accuracy in recent years, and research around it is "exponentially taking off," Huguenard said.

For example, genetics experts are beginning to understand conditions that are polygenic, meaning that they are potentially related to small variations in multiple genes.

"It's not that the technology is too complex at this time. It's that understanding, and interpretation, of what that raw data means," she said.

SundayMonday on 11/10/2019

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