Katherine Dawson was always comfortable with her origin story.

Like one in every 18 babies born in Australia today, she was the result of IVF.

“I thought it was pretty cool that I was made in a Petri dish,” the 34-year-old says.

“I was frozen for possibly seven years … That sounds like sci-fi.”

When Katherine was 11, her mother told her she was conceived using donated sperm. Initially, she didn’t have any interest in finding out who the donor was.

“I assumed he’d be a nice, generous, healthy bloke because that’s what they advertise,” Katherine says of IVF clinics.

“You don’t think there’s any lies.”

Katherine at her home in Adelaide.(Four Corners: Ron Foley)

Things began to change after Katherine’s mother died from cancer in 2009 and she started researching whether she had any half-siblings from the same donor.

What she found was a shock.

Katherine has since discovered she’s at the centre of a scandal involving two of Australia’s biggest fertility companies.

DNA testing has revealed poor vetting practices allowed her biological father to keep donating sperm over several years with alarming consequences.

She’s now telling her full story to Four Corners as part of an investigation into the lack of accountability and transparency in the multi-million-dollar IVF industry.

‘We looked similar’

Katherine was born in Victoria and today lives in Adelaide where she leads a busy life. She’s a singing teacher, musician and seamstress.

In 2015, she attended a conference for donor-conceived families and met a young woman who looked very similar to her, but their donor codes – the unique number given to a sperm donor by an IVF clinic – didn’t match.

Katherine has been searching for her siblings.(Four Corners)

“I wrote it off completely because there’s no way that clinics code siblings differently. There’s no way,” Katherine says.

A year later, she uploaded her DNA to an ancestry website and began to find matches.

The first match was the woman Katherine had met at the conference – they were half-sisters.

The next – another half-sister – came a year later.

“She had absolutely no idea she was donor-conceived.”

The three women have three different donor codes, but DNA shows they all have the same biological father.

The three donor codes are from Melbourne IVF, which is owned by fertility giant Virtus Health, and the ASX-listed Monash IVF.

‘Up to 700 siblings’

Sperm donors can no longer be anonymous in Australia.

Katherine found her donor through Victoria’s voluntary matching register and they met last year.

He is tall with light brown hair and green eyes, she says.

Four Corners is not naming the donor and is unable to contact him for comment.

Katherine discovered poor vetting practices had allowed him to donate for at least six years – between 1983 and 1989 – as he used multiple different names, generating different donor codes.

“He said all of the fake names that he used and that he went to six clinics and four hospitals,” she says.

Katherine has so far traced her siblings to three different donor codes.(Supplied: Katherine Dawson)

Donors in the 1970s and 1980s could be paid $10 per donation and donate multiple times.

Today it’s illegal to pay a donor but they can be reimbursed for expenses such as travel, and they are usually only legally allowed to create up to five or 10 families, depending on the state.

“I think that there were seven [names] including his own,” Katherine says of her donor father.

“Then if you go to 10 different clinics and hospitals, like he said he did …

“I estimate that there could be up to 700 siblings.”

Katherine estimates she could have up to 700 siblings.(Four Corners)

It sounds far-fetched, but Katherine says the evidence continues to stack up. So far, she’s found 56 of her half-siblings living in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, the ACT and overseas.

And now Katherine says there’s an urgent need to contact them.

Health concerns

In Katherine’s study is a wall covered by a giant family tree and multiple post-it notes. It’s the culmination of her forensic search during the past seven years.

As Katherine has connected with more and more half-siblings, she has learned of a bowel cancer risk among several of them, including herself.

The donor also has schizophrenia, she says.

Katherine wants the clinics to contact her half-siblings.(Four Corners)

Both conditions can run in families and Katherine wants to encourage her siblings to get a colonoscopy to check their cancer risk, as well as be aware of things that can trigger a schizophrenic episode.

“I can’t live with myself if I don’t try to get that information to them,” she says.

“It’s not my job, but the clinics won’t do it.”

Melbourne IVF told Four Corners it undertook an investigation in 2018 that confirmed a man had donated under different names in the early 1980s.

It said it wrote to recipient families in 2019 after being contacted by a person conceived by the donor who wanted to share personal health information. It said 64 per cent of the families received its letter but didn’t say what health information it had passed on.

“We continue our efforts to contact the recipient families who did not respond to our original letter, so that we can disclose all relevant health information as it relates to this donor,” it said.

Katherine is using social media to try and find her siblings.(TikTok: @evielucasmusic)

Katherine says it’s not enough to only try and contact parents who used the sperm, and not her half-siblings.

“The clinics will only send a letter to my siblings’ parents … to an address that’s potentially 20 to 40 years old,” she says.

“I don’t really know anyone that lives in the same house as they did 40 years ago.”

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Monash IVF didn’t confirm if it had tried to contact recipient parents but told Four Corners it treats any new health concerns raised by its donor-conceived people seriously and sensitively – and that it must comply with its legislative obligations.

“We are bound by laws that only permit disclosure of medical information to donor-recipient parents and their donor-conceived children in certain circumstances, such as to save someone’s life,” it said.

“In determining whether this new health information is life-threatening or poses a sufficiently serious risk to permit disclosure, we conduct a comprehensive risk assessment.

“We would also consider whether the recipient would be able to do anything to mitigate the risk, if made aware of the issue.”

Katherine has only been able to share the health information with some of her siblings.(Four Corners)

Katherine says she’s frustrated by what she sees as the clinics’ lack of effort,

“If someone had information for you that could save your life, how would you feel knowing that the clinics that created you … [are] blocking you from having it?”

She has complained about the clinics’ conduct to the industry-funded regulator, the Reproductive Technology Accreditation Committee (RTAC), which is responsible for auditing clinics against a Code of Practice and granting licenses.

“They’ve said that all they can really do is strongly encourage the clinics to act,” she says.

“There’s millions going into making these babies, but nothing going into protecting them.”

Katherine works as a seamstress and is also a musician.(Four Corners: Ron Foley)

RTAC told Four Corners the decision to contact donor parents and donor-conceived individuals about new medical information regarding a donor, and the extent of that contact, is based on the risk level determined by clinical experts.

Emeritus Professor Bill Ledger is a Sydney-based fertility specialist with 30 years’ experience in IVF clinics. He says he’s not surprised that the regulator can’t do more.

“RTAC has not been set up to deeply investigate [and] regulate in individual practice. That’s not its role,” he says.

“It does a good job, but its job is limited by the rules it works under.”

Katherine hopes to find more of her siblings.(Four Corners)

Katherine doesn’t blame her donor father for what has happened.

“He is a vulnerable party in all of this,” she says.

“[It’s] the clinics who are the medical professionals and a company should be controlling the environment of this and putting safeguards in place.”

Melbourne IVF said current donor vetting processes have vastly changed since the 1980s and would prevent what happened with Katherine’s donor from happening today.

“Three-point photo ID verification is required for all contact including at every sperm collection appointment at any of our clinics,” it said.

“Under Victorian law, donors are required to declare whether they have donated at another clinic or to another person or couple”.

IVF clinics require donors to have a semen analysis and genetic counselling to review their family history.

Katherine is continuing her search.(Four Corners)

Katherine isn’t close with her donor but says when they met he said he felt bad for not knowing about the upbringings of the children he helped create.

While there are a lot of them, the new siblings Katherine has formed relationships with have been the “silver lining” in the experience, she says.

Every day she checks the ancestry website for any new matches.

“My story seems to be a shock, but it’s not just my story, it’s potentially 700 other families’ story too,” she says.

Watch the Four Corners investigation ‘When IVF goes wrong’ from 8.30pm on Monday on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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