'I walk around, and I could be related to anyone' says Jacoba Ballard, a donor-conceived adult, of her neighbourhood in Indianapolis. Her fears are well-founded; a donor-conceived child through artificial insemination, Ballard is one of the many people in this real-crime documentary to trace her paternity to just one man, Dr Donald Cline.
Opening shots of a corridor, walls covered with photographs of babies and infants juxtaposed with insistent religious images and paraphernalia, establish a foreboding atmosphere in this Netflix documentary about Cline, fertility specialist and prolific sperm donor whose activities at his Indianapolis clinic in the late 1970s into the 1980s are the subject of this Netflix documentary, Our Father (first aired May 2022). Stories of medical staff as covert sperm donors are nothing new (see BioNews 1082) but they retain their ability to shock us; they play to our darkest fears reminding us that trust is a fragile thing, especially when we are at our most vulnerable.
Dr Cline could not have predicted that in decades to come, DNA testing kits would become a popular gift among those curious to establish their ancestry. For several people, their origin proved to be too close for comfort. At the time of writing, dozens of half-siblings have traced their paternity to one man – Dr Cline himself (see BioNews 869). Despite being told that the sperm being used came from 'medical students' (an accepted practice pre-1985 in the USA, where 'residents' donated sperm on site because it had to be body temperature and was not frozen to be stored), the women treated by the gynaecologist were inseminated using his own sperm – without their consent.
Ballard, the first sibling to uncover the truth about her conception, had known since the age of ten that she had been conceived using donor insemination. A DNA test in 2014 revealed she had seven siblings – even though a donor was only supposed to donate three times because of the risk of consanguineous relationships between half-siblings. The documentary follows her determined quest to reach out to the rising number of siblings (an effective device used throughout the documentary is the steady accumulation of numbered 'matches') to inform them about their biological father, in the knowledge that this truth could be potentially devastating for them and their families. It quickly becomes clear that, while she does not relish the responsibility, Ballard is not someone to be messed with or easily intimidated as she seeks to hold the now elderly but unbowed Dr Cline to account.
The man at the centre of all this is now a respected pillar of the community and 'church elder'. Behind his brisk professional competence, Dr Cline appears to have cut procedural corners with a sense of self-belief and entitlement. Staunchly denying any culpability at first, he eventually pleads altruism – he only used his own sperm when no other donor was available, he says; he wanted to 'help childless couples'. Refusing to give a DNA sample during court proceedings, he objects to being found out, pleading indignantly with Ballard 'I'm going to be hurt badly': a classic narcissist's response.
A reporter from Fox59 eventually picks up the story and recounts clumsy attempts at intimidation by Dr Cline, who meets her in a café but draws attention to the gun he is carrying. Dr Cline's professional partner Dr Robert Colver and the practice nurse Jan Shore suspected nothing, nor was there any overview of the lack of records kept by Dr Cline. Shore recalls him as someone with a superiority complex – 'he always knew more'; 'if you crossed him, that was it'.
In the days before chaperoning, women at their most vulnerable placed their absolute trust in doctors, with no-one to witness malpractice. This is not explored in the documentary, which relies instead on the shock value of interviews with Dr Cline's donor children, re-treading the heartbreak they feel at having their sense of identity wiped out. The mothers who underwent the insemination procedures are slightly sidelined, and the putative fathers even more so, despite further horrors emerging, such as the discovery that Dr Cline had used his own sperm when some women thought it was their partner's sperm. Most of the siblings are within a 25 km radius of each other, and many have suffered with autoimmune disorders (traced to Dr Cline's rheumatoid arthritis, which would have excluded him from donating sperm, if only he had not felt entirely free to bypass the existing guidelines).
Of the many issues the documentary explores, the intersection between the treatment of women's bodies, extreme Christian evangelism and patriarchal attitudes, and the standing of the law, deserves a deeper and more rigorous level of enquiry. It seems unfathomable that Dr Cline could deliberately impregnate his patients and in the face of irrefutable evidence of this, only be found guilty of misleading the District Attorney by lying (a USD$500 fine from a sympathetic judge (see BioNews 924). At a time when hard-won women's rights over their own bodies is so egregiously and sinisterly under threat, the response from law agencies is underwhelming at best (see BioNews 931). A suggestion that Dr Cline was acting according to the teachings of the catchily-named Quiverfull Cult, procreating children as metaphorical arrows of God to be sent out to spread his word, is not followed up. I almost had to look this up in case it had been invented by Margaret Attwood, so strong was the Handmaid's Tale style lunacy at work here. Unfortunately it turns out to be real, at least in the minds of its proponents.
The many blond haired, blue eyed adult children may seem to point at an attempt to play eugenics; no children of other ethnic origins appear in the documentary, which is only acknowledged by Ballard when she refers to the siblings as 'this perfect Aryan clan… it's disgusting.' The documentary makers, however, using grainy filmic reconstructions, re-create the scene when, in 1963, a 24 year-old Dr Cline accidentally runs over and kills a four year-old girl, Angela Golden, who was riding her bike in a local neighbourhood. Angela was a young black girl, and the reconstruction is, unfathomably, staged entirely using white actors. Having casually obliterated the identity of the Golden family, for entirely questionable motives, the film makers appear more interested in putting forward a theory of atonement on Dr Cline's part, a supposed drive to 'replace' the life he carelessly took in 1963. It turns out to be another unconvincing theory.
By this time, we are frankly past much caring what the good doctor's motivations are; time spent trying to unpick the clearly shifting sands of the muddled psyche of the bigoted, gun-carrying Dr Cline might better be spent improving laws to safeguard women's sexual and reproductive rights against the many threats these face around the world. The main drive for this story (and heroine) is the determined and stoical Ballard, whose calm, rational and scientific mindset is underpinned by her own religious faith and refusal to accept self-justifications and threats from a man seemingly being granted cover by virtue of his position in the local religious community. She is the main strength and inspiration of the documentary, keeping us gripped by her quest for truth and staunch support of her half-siblings. At the last count the number was 93.