A DNA test led one family to a startling revelation about their son.
In July 2019, Donna and Vanner Johnson decided to order some DNA kits for themselves and their two children — just for fun. The Utah-based couple sent off their 23andMe samples, then forgot about them until the results showed up on their wedding anniversary.
“My husband called and said, ‘Hey, I got my results back,'” Donna, 45, tells TODAY Parents. “But he said there was something off.”
Their youngest son’s relatives didn’t seem to match the family, she said. Listed under “mother” was Donna. Listed under “father” was the word “unknown.”
At first, the couple assumed it was a mistake. Then Donna looked at her results. “I looked at my son’s results and it said that he had a half-brother through me, and it all came crashing down,” Donna explains. “I knew something was wrong.”
After the birth of the couple’s first child, Vanner, 46, underwent three hernia surgeries that inadvertently damaged his vas deferens, making it impossible for the couple to have another child without medical intervention. Donna says they always wanted a large family, so they went to the University of Utah Center for Reproductive Medicine to undergo IVF.
Donna remembers being in the clinic, “and they said they’d have a carrier bring Vanner’s sperm to the lab.” Two embryos were implanted and Donna was pregnant with their second son, Tim.
Holding the DNA test results in their hands, Vanner and Donna realized something horribly wrong had happened during the IVF process — another man’s sperm was used to fertilize Donna’s egg.
Earlier this week, another couple in a different area of the country went public with a similar situation: Two California women ended up giving birth to each other’s biological children due to an IVF mixup. They discovered the mistake when the babies were infants, and ended up exchanging the babies when they were four months old so each could be raised by its biological parents. One of the couples filed a lawsuit on Monday against the IVF clinic and their doctor. Neither the clinic nor the doctor responded to TODAY’s request for comment.
“We were so shocked, and honestly didn’t know what to do,” Donna shares. “We just kept thinking, ‘What is happening to our family? Is our son legally our son? We didn’t know for sure, and we were worried.” There has not been a lawsuit filed in the Utah case.
In a statement to TODAY, a University of Utah spokesperson said that they cannot comment on patient cases without consent. “The safety and care of our patients is our primary goal. If patients come to us with questions or concerns about their care, we evaluate our procedures and, if necessary, make changes to prevent harm from happening to other patients. Our providers and staff strive to provide excellent care and we constantly work to make improvements,” the spokesperson added.
Before the couple even considered searching for their son’s biological father, they had to tell their son.
“Because the mistake happened to me, I felt like I needed to talk to him, father to son,” Vanner tells TODAY. “So I took my son on a drive to get ice cream.”
Vanner says that he and his wife never hid the fact that Tim was the product of IVF, so he started the conversation by nonchalantly reminding him that Donna had gone through in vitro in order to have him. He then reminded his son of the DNA kits, asking if he remembered taking a test — Tim remembered.
“Then I said that the tests found that when we got pregnant with you, and we went through IVF, something happened in the lab, some kind of mix up, and it turns out that I am not your biological father,” Vanner adds.
Vanner said Tim was looking down at his lap during the conversation, in a typical 12-year-old kid kind of way, and when he learned his dad wasn’t his biological father he looked up and then out the window. He then looked at his dad and asked, “Really?”
Vanner assured him it was real as Tim looked out the window again.
“He said that whatever happens, I’m still his dad. And I said, ‘Yeah, I am. I will always be your dad.'”
Vanner asked his son how he felt and what his thoughts were. “Right away, one of the things he said was, ‘The only thing I wish is that I knew what I would look like with your genes,'” Vanner says. “And he said that whatever happens, I’m still his dad. And I said, ‘Yeah, I am. I will always be your dad.'”
Tim took a few weeks to continue processing the news and talking with his parents before he was ready to talk about it with his older brother. Donna and Vanner sat their firstborn down, told him the news, and his response was simple: “It doesn’t matter, he’s still my brother.”
They also put Tim in charge of whether they would search for his biological father. Once he decided that he did want to know, the family purchased another DNA test kit via Ancestry.com and sent off another round of samples. The results listed multiple biological family members — aunts, first cousins, a grandmother. “So we started doing our sleuthing and got really good at searching obituaries,” Donna says. “Vanner would type ‘survived by’ and put a name.”
“I kept looking at this man and thinking, ‘I can’t see my son in him.’ I didn’t want to.”
That’s how the couple found Devin and Kelly McNeil, who have three children of their own.
“Devin came to me and said, ‘I got this really weird phone call from a guy asking if we did IVF,'” Kelly, 44, tells TODAY. “I told him to call me back, so he’s calling in an hour and wants to FaceTime.” Her husband asked Kelly if she wanted to be on the call. “I said that it sounds weird, but that I would hang around.”
Vanner asked the couple a series of questions — if they went through an IVF cycle in 2007, if their IVF was conducted at the University of Utah.
“And then he explained their story, and how they found Devin and how Vanner believed that Devin was the biological father,” Kelly adds. “At that point, my mind was blown. I was speechless.”
The McNeils were still uneasy about the situation, but Devin agreed to take a DNA test, paid for by the Johnsons (the Johnsons shared the results of that test with TODAY). Vanner also shared the 23andMe DNA results with the McNeils.
“It showed Devin’s family members and his line: his grandma, his sister, his nieces and nephews, all showing up in Tim’s line,” Kelly says. “It was hard to argue with those results.”
As the two families waited six weeks for the results, they continued to text and FaceTime. Donna recalls examining Devin’s face during one FaceTime call, searching for signs he was her son’s biological father.
“I kept looking at this man and thinking, ‘I can’t see my son in him.’ I didn’t want to. I couldn’t imagine that my son has his biology. He had a beard and I couldn’t see it,” she recalls. “Then I remember at one point running across a picture of him without a beard, and I saw the dimple on his chin. That’s when I knew — that was my son’s dimple.”
“Life doesn’t always give you the gifts that you want, but the true gift is life itself.”
Devin’s DNA test confirmed what both families had suspected — he was Tim’s biological father. The McNeils were now tasked with telling their three children, at the time 6, 8, and 13, that they had a biological half-brother. They had a “birds and the bees” conversation with their young children, and explained what IVF is and that they had their oldest with help from doctors.
“After we explained how IVF worked, we told them that the doctors had accidentally used dad’s sperm with another woman’s eggs, a baby was made, and that we just found out that they have a half brother,” Kelly adds. “I think their minds were blown.”
After a few seconds of stunned silence, Kelly says all three of her children said it was cool to have another sibling, and asked if they could see pictures and learn more about him.
“My 8-year-old said something pretty profound at the end,” Kelly says. “He said, ‘I heard on a show once that life doesn’t always give you the gifts that you want, but the true gift is life itself.’ It was from some cartoon he was watching. I remember thinking we needed to write that down, because our child just taught us all a lesson.”
“Tim is loved and taken care of and has a good home and great parents. We don’t want to take that away.”
Since the shocking revelation, both families have met twice — spending time at a park, having dinner together, going on a hike and playing basketball. They plan to continue being friends, and the McNeils say they will be as involved in Tim’s life as much as he wants.
“We just decided that we need to make this positive, and make it about what Tim wants, because it’s really his story,” Kelly says. “He’s not our kid; he’s an extension of our family. Vanner is still his dad, and Tim is loved and taken care of and has a good home and great parents. We don’t want to take that away.”
Both couples say they want to see more rules and regulations put in place to ensure this doesn’t happen to another family again.
“This was still a horrible mistake and something that shouldn’t have happened,” Kelly adds. “Even one case is too many cases.”
Melissa Brisman, a lawyer specializing in reproductive issues practicing in Manhattan and New Jersey who is not involved with the Johnsons’ situation, says she receives calls about IVF clinic mishaps every week. From cases of actual fraud, to data entry errors, to accidental multiple embryo transfers, Brisman says the entire system of fertility clinics needs to be examined. And for people like the Johnsons and the McNeils, Brisman says the legal system isn’t designed to help them.
“The only remedy that the court can give right now is money, and that is not sufficient. A biological father was deprived of the ability to choose whether or not to be a biological father,” Brisman tells TODAY. “And a person who expected to have a biological child, and obviously still loves his child, was deprived of that opportunity to have a biological child instead of somebody else’s sperm unwillingly being produced to create a child for them. The remedy for that is not replaceable.”
“Obviously we wouldn’t want our son any different — he is who he is and we love him. Every bit of him.”
Vanner Johnson says he thought the legal guidelines would be more clear.
“We thought there would be a set of legal guidelines, and I thought there would be ramifications much larger than what normally come from a medical malpractice case, because this is a bigger deal,” Vanner says. “But it turns out, there’s not.”
The Johnsons are still processing what happened, and say that the emotions vary and hit them at different times.
“Obviously we wouldn’t want our son any different — he is who he is and we love him. Every bit of him. So there is that gratitude,” Donna Johnson says. “But there is that frustration, that disappointment. No one should have to face this because of a lab mistake.”