Dutch docu-series “Seeds of Deceit” tells the disturbing story of Dr. Jan Karbaat, a pioneer in the field of artificial insemination who secretly used his own sperm to impregnate his patients.
Across three episodes, director Miriam Guttmann weaves a complex narrative which balances the perspectives of the women abused by Karbaat, the dozens of children he fathered, and the “superdonors” who returned to his clinic over and over again to illegally “spread their seed” far and wide.
“Seeds of Deceit” was the first Dutch series ever to debut at Sundance and is now positioned for a global sales foray as one of the Series Market Selects at Berlinale.
Variety caught up with Guttmann and Monique Busman, who co-produced alongside Michiel van Erp, to discuss the show’s jaw-dropping revelations and their thoughts on how to ensure that Karbaat and his friends’ twisted actions will never be repeated.
What compelled you to explore the story of Dr. Karbaat and his clinic?
MG: The headline, “Fertility doctor has produced children using his own sperm” immediately caught my attention; it’s sensational. But at the same time, I was even more curious about how this news affected the children and the mothers and I really wanted to dive into those personal stories. I think it’s a very layered story: the first layer is really sensational, it’s about sperm, but then when you dig deeper, it’s about identity and nature-nurture and is blood thicker than water, what makes family. Those themes we can all relate to; we are all the results of upbringing. I really tried to go beyond the sensation.
It’s interesting how some of the mothers describe Karbaat as a seedy creep, while others paint him as a caring man.
MG: He’s a very complex figure; he has multiple faces. On the one hand, he’s this really friendly, charming doctor. He was ahead of his time, he helped lesbians and single moms have children when no-one else did. But on the other hand, he abused women and used his position of power. He falsified donor passports and he made donors come back for years although the law was 25 children per donor at the time. The zeitgeist has really changed because I think he and his former colleagues could have never expected that there are now DNA tests and people can easily find their biological parents.
Since the revelations about Karbaat’s clinic, there have been reports from around the world of fertility doctors also using their own sperm to inseminate patients and “superdonors” fathering dozens of children. Why is this such a persistent issue?
MB: It’s absolutely a huge problem still today. There are not good rules and laws to stop it from happening.
MG: The law changed in 2004 so people cannot donate anonymously anymore, but there’s no central registration. Donors can still go to several clinics. Internationally, there’s no central registration, and there’s also the whole private sector where donors can just donate online. There was a guy a few weeks ago in the Netherlands who has 250 children. He’s donating to women online. It’s a warning to show what can happen when there are not enough laws and rules.
Louis, a regular donor to Karbaat’s clinic who now has countless biological children, reveals in the series that his motivation behind donating over and over was to be seen “as a pharaoh building his pyramid.” What was your reaction when he said that?
MG: Of course it is wild and I was shocked, but I really tried to connect with all of my characters and step behind them. What I find very relatable is the fact that one wants to be remembered. I think we all want to be remembered, we all want to have mattered, we all want to have a funeral where there are many people. They don’t all have to be descendants of course, but that’s what I find very sympathetic. You can say that he had a god complex, but apparently there are men around the world who have this urge to procreate.
MB: It’s devastating to realize that if you do this and you don’t know how many children you have in the world, maybe they fall in love with each other? The impact is big, it’s incredible.
Do you think any of them stopped to think of the wider consequences of their actions?
MG: I think the times have completely changed. In Karbaat’s last interview, which is partly cited in this series, he literally says I never thought about the children and them all being half brothers or sisters. In the 70s and 80s semen used to be fresh, there was no way to freeze it. The donors would come on their bicycle, the doctor would get the sperm from them and inseminate the patients right away. I also heard from a former employee that the logistics were really hard, sometimes there would just be no donor available and then a doctor would just do the job. I think that it started that way and then he just lost it. He also impregnated women with water instead of sperm so that’s a financial motive, but then he asked for pictures of children, so that’s more the memorial kind of angle.
In the first episode, an anonymous former patient alleges that Karbaat raped her on the operating table. That must have been a difficult interview to conduct?
MG: I found that very shocking. It’s another Me Too story and it happened behind closed doors. The wish of these women to become mothers was so strong that they let this happen and kept it a secret also was really shocking to find. We had a viewing with all the characters involved and it was powerful for the women to find out that they were not the only ones. It gave sort of a sense of recognition and community in a weird way because they had this secret for all these years. They had so many secrets like the big one towards their children that they were not the biological children of their legal dads. It’s really important that this story now is finally being told.
You show that many of Karbaat’s children have come together and some are seeking compensation from the doctor’s family. What do you see as the future of this issue?
MG: I think that many of the Karbaat children after three years are already a little numb towards such a big group which is only getting bigger. They pick their favorite half-brothers and half-sisters because it’s just so overwhelming. You can’t have 70 best friends. But I think the beautiful side of it is that they really have this sense of belonging and recognition, which they never had in their own families. They couldn’t recognize themselves in their legal fathers, they couldn’t recognize themselves in their siblings at home. Now they’re full grown-ups, but they really connect with one another and they have the same humor. They have this sense of grounding I think they never had. It also made me realize how privileged I am and fortunate that I was always able to recognize myself in my dad. We really look alike and that gives you structure. It’s the simple fact is that you know where you come from, we all take for granted. When you don’t have that it really has an impact on the rest of your life.