Bryce Cleary spent the past 30 years believing he had five biological children leading their lives somewhere on the other side of the country, conceived with his donated sperm but forever anonymous.
It was 1989 when he gave his sperm to the fertility clinic at Oregon Health & Science University, where he was a first-year medical student, believing his donation would help infertile couples and advance science. The facility promised that once his sperm had conceived five babies in mothers living on the East Coast, the rest would be used for research, Cleary said Wednesday at a news conference. He had assured his wife that the donor children were far enough away that their own four children could never run into them in their Oregon town, or unwittingly befriend them or fall in love with them.
“So you can imagine his shock,” his attorney Chris Best said at the news conference, “when, after 30 years, Dr. Cleary recently [learned] that no less than 17 children have been born from his donations” ― all of whom were born in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest.
And some of those children have gone to the same schools and churches and social events — raising the possibility that they met without knowing they were siblings.
Now, the startling discovery has led Cleary to file a $5.25 million lawsuit against OHSU on Wednesday, accusing the university of fraud. The “deceitful and reckless” actions of his alma mater, Cleary said, led him to fear that the descendants of his 21 children will also grow up in the same area, leading to an “unacceptable risk” that they could intermingle. Until now, Cleary said, he had no reason to believe the university had violated the alleged promises it made to him 30 years ago.
“Without these promises, I would have never participated,” he said. “Recently, I became painfully aware that these promises were a lie.”
One son he raised, James Cleary, now a lawyer, is also representing him in the state court lawsuit, sharing the same fears for his own future children.
The university said in a statement that it could not comment on the case, citing patient privacy, but said “OHSU treats any allegation of misconduct with the gravity it deserves.”
The 17 children born from Bryce Cleary’s sperm donation — some not yet identified by name — are only the ones who have been discovered so far, largely after Cleary joined Ancestry.com in 2018. Others may still be out there, Cleary said. Cleary, a family physician in Corvallis, Ore., doesn’t know whether he could have unknowingly treated one of his own biological children. At least one lives in Corvallis. At least two children attended the same elementary school in the same area. And at least two attended the same high school, James Cleary said. Others were part of the same social circles, and one even worked at a coffee shop two blocks from another’s home.
“This has obviously greatly impacted my dad, and as his son, I feel for him, and I feel for my half siblings,” James Cleary told The Washington Post. “When I have kids, I’m going to have to tell them what’s going on, and they’ll have to be careful. If you do simple math and there’s 17 in the area, and they all have two kids, that’s a lot of people you’re related to. We live in a small area and you don’t know who’s who.”
At the news conference Wednesday, Cleary sat next to a woman who looked distinctly like him, whom Cleary was meeting in person for the first time — his daughter Allysen Allee, 25.
Allee said she started using Ancestry.com in 2015 out of curiosity, not to find her biological father but to find her half siblings, something that excited her having grown up as an only child. She shared a DNA sample with the company behind the website, which allows users to explore their genealogy — and soon enough, she found a sister.
“We were just interested to see how many there were out there,” she said, adding that she found another sibling as recently as a few months ago.
Filling in the family tree, she located Cleary through one of his relatives, who was on Ancestry.com at the time. The information she found appeared to match Cleary’s anonymous donor profile, which OHSU had provided to her mother in the 1990s, and which included the ages of Cleary’s family members.
“It’s just very difficult to imagine,” Cleary said. “They knew me long before I had any clue this was going on.”
It all came together once Cleary signed up for Ancestry.com in 2018. Immediately, he realized something unusual: Four children he didn’t know existed popped up as instant matches. What were the odds that almost all of the donor children he helped conceive decades ago were on the website, too? He had no reason to there were more than five, he said.
“I knew something was wrong,” he said. “Because the odds of that happening were not reasonable.”
At least four of the donor kids, including Allee, started reaching out to him through the website — and that’s when he learned they all lived in the same area, less than two hours away from him. Cleary was shocked.
At first, he tried to start relationships, meeting a few in person and corresponding via email. He wasn’t sure what to do. He never planned on even knowing their identities, but now that they found each other was he obligated to be in their lives? What if some needed help? What if one had kidney failure and his kidneys were the only match? All those questions ran though his mind, he said at the news conference. He continued communicating with the first four — but as more and more emerged, it became exhausting, he said.
“At the time, I had no idea of the scope and I thought, this is going to be fine,” he said. “And then at some point I just had to say this is crazy — I can’t be emotionally invested in all these people.”
Through Allee, he learned that his sperm was available for artificial insemination at least as late as 2002, when Allee’s mother considered using it again to have another baby.
For Allee, it was never part of the plan to have an extensive relationship with Cleary, she said. She just wanted to say hello. But since then, the discovery that her biological father had been allegedly misled by the same clinic that helped bring her into the world has been unsettling, she said. She is now pregnant with her third child, “and the idea of my children having dozens and dozens of cousins that will be their ages, in the same area, is concerning.”
She said she hadn’t considered joining the lawsuit — she just wanted to be there on Wednesday to join Cleary in calling for stricter regulations for fertility clinics, so this could never happen again.
“I’m thankful I was raised in a good family with a strong mother and father,” she said. “But knowing that you were a product of fraud against somebody else is emotionally overwhelming.”