By 2020, over 30 million people worldwide had taken a DNA test. Many take it to learn more about their ethnicity. For Rebecca Cartellone, it was a gateway to her father’s proud Italian heritage. But instead of being a fun Christmas present, these DNA tests revealed a harrowing secret that permanently changed the family.
It Began With An Exciting Christmas Present
In 2018, Rebecca Cartellone bought a shared Christmas present for her entire family: a DNA testing kit to find out her family’s heritage.
Rebecca is the only daughter of Joseph (Joe) and Jennifer Cartellone. This wasn’t the first time their family heritage had come up; she had expressed an interest in it long before.
The Family Had A Proud Italian Lineage
The Cartellones had a proud Italian ancestry, mainly from Joe’s side of the family. Rebecca, 24, had researched her ancestors before. She was curious about how much Italian was in her blood.
Contrary to popular belief, DNA is not a 50/50 ratio between the mother and daughter. That is why families often take DNA tests together.
How Does An Ancestry Kit Work?
The Cartellones bought their kit from Ancestry.com, but most work the same way. They require a person’s DNA sample, usually in the form of saliva through a spit test tube or cheek swab.
The results are then sent to a database that logs a person’s DNA and connects them to others.
These Tests Connect People To Previously-Unknown Relatives
Ancestry kits are famous (or perhaps notorious) for revealing new relatives. When a person’s DNA matches another person in the database, the ancestry explains how they are related.
Many people have discovered long-lost relatives through DNA tests. For parents and children, the results reveal which parts of the child come from which parent.
The Cartellones Got Mystifying Results
The Cartellones sent in their DNA kits right after Christmas. In late January, they received their results. But they never could have anticipated what they found out.
Rebecca had no trace of her father’s DNA. In fact, there was hardly any Italian at all. The ancestry site even said that Rebecca and Joe were not related.
Joe Seemed To Be Out Of The Picture
“When we looked at the results, what we immediately noticed was that that there were no traces of Italian DNA in [Rebecca’s results] at all,” Joe told Good Morning America.
“Her DNA matched my wife’s pretty closely.” Since the results seemed half right, Joseph assumed that the ancestry site had made an error.
Could The Ancestry Company Have Messed Up?
Joe called the ancestry business and expressed his doubts. According to him, the employees gave him a step-by-step process for how they calculate a person’s DNA.
After Joe listened to the employees, he believed that the ancestry site could not have made a mistake. So what happened? And who was Rebecca’s father?
Perhaps Their IVF Went Wrong In 1994
The answer dates back to 1994. When Joe and Jennifer wanted a child, they pursued IVF.
IVF, or in vitro fertilization, removes eggs from a mother and then fertilizes them with the father’s sperm. After the egg is fertilized, it is put back into the mother. IVF is the most popular route for couples who struggle with infertility.
To Confirm This, They Took A Paternity Test
With no other options, Joe and Rebecca Cartellone took a paternity test to confirm the results. They were correct; Rebecca was not Joe’s daughter.
But they still had many unanswered questions. In the words of genealogist Debbie Kennett, “the DNA on its own doesn’t give the science; you need the contextual family information as well.”
The Doctors Mixed Up Rebecca’s Dad
Joe and Jennifer underwent IVF at Christ Hospital near their hometown of Dublin, Ohio. The physicians told them that they would use Jennifer’s egg and Joe’s sperm.
Because of the DNA results, Joe realized that Christ Hospital mixed up their sperm samples. Rebecca was not his biological daughter, and nobody knew who was.
Is This Possible?
Unfortunately, sperm mix-ups are more common in IVF than many would like to believe. Because fertility clinics house so many sperm donations, a mix-up is always possible.
In 2017, news broke about a Dr. Donald Cline, who used his own sperm in multiple IVF treatments in the 1980s. These stories breed distrust in patients across the world.
Joe Felt Crushed
Joe felt crushed by the realization. “It’s hard to explain the shock and agony when you find out that someone you love and care for—your own daughter—is not genetically related to you,” he said during a press conference.
“My disbelief turned quickly to shock and then ultimately to anger that this could possibly be the case.”
Jennifer Was Not Doing Well, Either
Joe said that the news had been “extremely difficult” for his family. “My wife Jennifer is still in shock.”
“She has to deal with the fact that this clinic…fertilized her eggs with a complete stranger’s sperm and placed them in her body,” Joe explained. Not only is this traumatizing; it’s also illegal.
Rebecca Felt Guilty For Even Getting The DNA Tests
Perhaps the most negatively impacted family member was Rebecca. After the fallout, she felt guilty for even buying the DNA kits in the first place.
Joe claimed that Rebecca experienced “significant emotional distress and confusion regarding her own identity.” She was also “profoundly disappointed” that she could not give birth to a child with both of her parents’ genetics.
Distraught, The Cartellones Reached Out For Help
Distraught and confused, the Cartellones sought legal help. They reached out to the Peiffer Wolf Carr & Kane law firm to figure out what to do.
The lawyers were equally as appalled. “This is a massive betrayal of trust and an unthinkable break of trust,” said managing shareholder Joseph C. Peiffer.
Fertility Clinics Could Get Horrendous Legal Repercussions
Fertility clinics that mix up sperm donations are susceptible to harsh legal repercussions. For one thing, Jennifer never consented to another man’s sperm fertilizing her egg.
Another issue is that children might have a likelihood of genetic diseases that the family did not know about. Rebecca might be at risk of certain conditions, and she would not know it.
Who Was Rebecca’s Biological Father?
More than anything, the family wanted to know who Rebecca’s biological father was. Their lawyers helped them trace the DNA results, which linked to five men that Rebecca had never met.
According to the family’s lawyer, Adam Wolf, one man “previously worked as a doctor at The Christ Hospital.” This is a disturbing find.
The Fertility Doctors Might Have Sabotaged The IVF Process
If Rebecca’s biological father was a doctor, there is a high likelihood of sabotage. Even if it wasn’t intentional, it is still unethical.
“I would strongly urge them to have their eyes wide open and understand something we did not at the time, which is that this is an industry that has a lot of issues and errors and mistakes, and even some intentional,” Joe said during a press conference.
Does Joe Have Other Biological Children?
The family also wants to know what happened to Joe’s sperm. “If you provide sperm to create an embryo and you find out that sperm was not used for your daughter, you have to wonder, where did your sperm go?” Wolf said.
Was it used to fertilize another family’s eggs? If so, Joe would have other children somewhere.
The Cartellones Are Suing The Hospital
Desperate for answers, the Cartellones–Joe, Jennifer, and Rebecca–are suing Christ Hospital and all of its involved facilities.
The lawsuit is tackling three entities specifically: Christ Hospital, the Institute for Reproductive Health, and Ovation Fertility Cincinnati. The family demands responsibility for Rebecca’s ancestry along with monetary compensation. But this will not be an easy lawsuit.
The Hospital Is Charged With Battery And Neglect
In the best-case scenario, this mistake with the Cartellones is both a breach of contract and negligence. However, Wolf is also charging the hospital with battery.
In criminal law, battery is a physical act that results in harmful contact with another person without their consent. Jennifer never consented to a different sperm donor.
The Institute for Reproductive Health Did Not Exist In 1994
In response to the lawsuit, the Institute for Reproductive Health released a statement. A spokesperson said that it did not exist in the early ’90s.
Officials claimed that the fertilization occurred in a different, unaffiliated lab. “Our physicians are not involved in the fertilization of eggs with sperm, as this process is handled by embryologists in the IVF laboratory,” the statement explained.
The Ovation Center Didn’t Exist, Either
The Cartellones were even less lucky with Ovation Fertility Cincinnati. The current facility did not open until the 2000s; initially, it was The Christ Hospital’s Greater Cincinnati Institute.
“Therefore, any action that could have occurred in The Christ Hospital’s laboratory 25 years ago is unrelated to our lab,” a spokesperson claimed.
But Cartellone’s Lawyer Says Otherwise
Despite these claims, the family lawyer Adam Wolf had his doubts. He investigated the names of the Cartellones’ former lab director and doctor.
Both the director and doctor (whose names are kept confidential) now work for the Institute of Reproductive Health. So it is still possible to discover what happened with the IVF treatments.
The Hospital Is Not Providing Any Answers
Meanwhile, the hospital staff is even less helpful. CNN, NBC, and Good Morning America reached out for comment, but the Christ Hospital Health Network declined each one.
The only bit of information released was that the hospital is “evaluating the allegations surrounding events alleged to have occurred in the early 1990s.” Who knows where this will go?
The Cartellones Weren’t The Only Victims
The Cartellones were not the only ones to suffer from an IVF mix-up. The law firm they hired, Peiffer Wolf Carr & Kane, represented many other clients with IVF struggles.
All of these families are confused and distressed about their heritage. “One of the things we really want to find out through our lawsuit is what happened,” said Wolf. “Right now, we have no idea.”
There Are Even Support Groups For Surprising Ancestry Results
Ancestry tests have revealed many dark family secrets. Rebecca’s experience is so common that there are support groups for it.
In 2017, a Facebook group called NPE Friends was launched. NPE, or “Not Parents Expected,” is appropriate for anyone who found out that they are not related to their parents. It is a traumatizing experience for Rebecca and others.
The Cartellones Might Have Many Unknown Family Members
The Cartellones are haunted by the idea that they might have many unknown relatives. Rebecca wonders if she has sisters or brothers. She also has no idea who her grandparents are.
Meanwhile, Joe wonders if he has children somewhere. The Cartellones’ idea of their family had been shattered, and now they have to pick up the pieces.
The Family Hopes They Can Help Others In The Future
Joe Cartellone has held press conferences about his case, as he hopes to prevent other families from being affected.
“These clinics need to be held accountable and they need to suffer real consequences for their actions,” he asserted. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that this doesn’t happen again to anyone else.”
Joe Shared Advice For Future IVF Couples
Along with his desire to change the fertility industry, Joe aims to warn future couples who use IVF treatments. Most cases end up fine, but there is always a possibility of something going wrong.
Joe recommends performing a DNA test on the embryos “are implanted in the mother-to-be.” Also, research IVF and do not blindly trust the process.