With his narrow face, prominent teeth and large eyes, Joey Hoofdman always looked very different from his siblings.
As well as that, his strong work ethic and keen sense of order was greatly at odds with the rest of his chaotic family.
Feeling like such an outsider made Joey miserable throughout his life. But when he began digging around for answers about his identity, little did he anticipate the scale of the genetic – and ethical – minefield he was about to step into.
While he was growing up in Rotterdam, Holland, Joey’s parents never hid the fact they had needed help conceiving him. His dad – who already had two kids from a previous marriage – had gone through a vasectomy reversal for Joey’s mum.
‘They told me they went to a doctor because of my father,’ explains Joey, 33. ‘They undid the procedure because my mum really wanted to have children of their own.’
Joey’s parents insisted the fertility treatment they’d received had been straightforward – his mother had been artificially inseminated with his father’s sperm. But Joey was unconvinced by this explanation: ‘I was just so different from my brother and sister.’
While Joey’s father drank, argued, and was constantly in debt selling the kids’ belongings for cash, Joey by contrast was sensible, calm and early on began saving for a better life.
Eventually, sick of feeling so isolated, at just 15 Joey met his first boyfriend, moved in with him, and left his family home – for ever. ‘It was the best decision I ever made,’ he admits.
By the time Joey was 19, he was a successful gym owner and in a stable, loving relationship. But even though he’d been able to escape the chaos of his family home, he was dogged with unease about his identity.
It nagged away at him until his father died in 2012 and – believing he’d never get to the bottom of it – Joey’s mental health spiralled.
‘Close friends saw it was really bothering me. It became a depression when my father passed away. I thought it was grief, but it never stopped. I felt, “Maybe I’m never going to know what happened?”
‘After three or four years, I was still in a state of depression and I didn’t want to get out of bed. It was the worst feeling I’d ever had.’
When Joey considered suicide, his psychiatrist urged him to confront his mother. So, in March 2017, after making her a coffee and sitting her in the garden, Joey begged her for answers.
‘“Is my father my biological father? Did something happen to you? Or am I from a neighbour or somebody else?” Mum was quite upset when I asked her that. She couldn’t believe I thought she might have been with another man. It distressed her, me thinking she had been unfaithful, but I just said, “Mum, please. I have to know for sure.”’
Joey asked her to take him through exactly how he was conceived, and she said she’d seen the vials of sperm labelled with the name of Joey’s father.
When pressed on the name of the clinic and doctor, his mum’s patchy recollections led Joey to do an online search, which brought up a suburban clinic near where he grew up and the doctor Jan Karbaat.
Joey was shocked to see many complaints about missing paperwork and lost vials, suspicions that women had been given the wrong sperm, and also a court case. The government had shut the clinic in 2009. It was a horror story. Joey’s mother was so upset by these findings, she threw her son out of the house there and then.
Continuing to Google Jan Karbaat sitting in his car, Joey spotted a photo of the fertility doctor behind the scandal, and got goosebumps, certain he was looking at his biological father.
‘It was like an electric shock. I couldn’t see his face, only myself. I had the same smile, the same eyes. I sent the picture to friends, they said, “Is that you, Joey?”’
Desperate for answers, Joey tracked down Karbaat, who was living locally. But when he knocked on his door, he was told the doctor, then 89, was too sick for visitors. A week later, he died.
Robbed of the opportunity to confront him, Joey searched for answers elsewhere. He discovered a Facebook group whose members suspected they were all Karbaat’s children.
Joey quickly built a rapport with Moniek Wassenaar, and noticed her Amsterdam home was strikingly similar in taste to his own. ‘We decided to see if we were really related and did a test – we were indeed half-siblings. That was the first match. It was very emotional.’
Then, in June 2017, Joey put his results on a genealogy site that matches DNA results with others around the world. It paired him with Inge Herlaar, 39, who he rang, saying, ‘I think I’m your half-brother.’ Then came a match with Marsha Elvers, 38, another half-sister.
At the time of Karbaat’s death in 2017, he was thought to have had 22 recognised children from several marriages, and was suspected of secretly fathering 49 more with his patients – without their permission.
In early 2019 a court decision was ruled allowing Karbaat’s DNA to be released for testing. Receiving the confirmation he was Karbaat’s son was momentous for Joey. ‘When I saw it written down, I broke,’ he admits. ‘It was almost too much to process.’
Joey has at least 61 known siblings and the family keeps growing. With dark humour they’ve called themselves the ‘Karbastards’. ‘Now, I’m no longer angry – but I am curious,’ says Joey. ‘I have the puzzle in my head, but I can’t put the pieces together.
‘Maybe he did it because of the money, maybe he had a God complex. That’s what everyone says. But I think, at the start, he just wanted to help mothers have children.’
Last month, Joey visited Karbaat’s grave in Rotterdam. ‘It was the closest I could get to him. That was the most important thing so I could have peace of mind. I’m not responsible for his wrongdoings and his actions, but I need to forgive him to move on. I deserve that.’
Shockingly, Jan Karbaat is not the only doctor to have committed fertility fraud – but no fertility doctor has ever been put behind bars for using their own sperm.
In May 2015 it emerged that physician Donald Cline, who’d featured in People magazine, had used his own sperm in the 1970s and 1980s while treating women in Indianapolis.
Cline was exposed after one of the people conceived at his clinic took a 23andMe DNA test, only to discover several unexpected half-siblings, whose mothers had all been Cline’s patients.
A pillar of the Jewish community in Ottawa, Barwin was head of the Canadian Fertility Society and had received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. Like Karbaat, he was first accused of chaotic record keeping, which led to women being given the wrong sperm.
But in 2016 it emerged he’d been using his own sperm. He’s currently being sued by a group of his biological children, and their legal mothers and fathers, his former patients.
This twisted doc – nicknamed The Sperminator by a TV doc about him – fathered over 70 children in Virginia. His case inspired a 1993 book, Babymaker.
He also injected women with the pregnancy hormone HCG, so they produced symptoms and believed themselves pregnant.
He would give them ultrasounds and tell them that bowels or faecal matter were foetuses, before later telling them their baby had died.
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