Weeks ago, a viral tweet introduced me to Our Father, a harrowing Netflix documentary. It’s about Donald Cline, a disgraced fertility doctor who secretly used his own sperm to inseminate dozens of patients in Indianapolis in the ‘70s and ’80s and how his actions upended the lives of his biological children.
The caption on the tweet pretty much nailed it: “What the f***********.”
Our Father hit Netflix on Wednesday, full of twists, emotionally wrenching interviews and more sort-of-distracting reenactments than I thought there’d be. (Still, I watched intently during its entire 97-minute run time.)
The film interviews several of Cline’s genetically linked children, including Jacoba Ballard, who took an at-home DNA test as an adult and discovered she had seven half-siblings. She’s introduced pretty early on, and over the course of the film, the sibling count rises. At the end, it’s revealed that there are at least 94 Cline siblings. Cline was not involved with the documentary or interviewed for it.
Lucie Jourdan makes her directorial documentary debut with the film, which comes from Netflix and Blumhouse Pictures. Here are answers to the major questions I had after watching Our Father.
Warning: If you haven’t seen the documentary, this article contains spoilers and some material that may be upsetting.
Have other fertility doctors inseminated patients without their knowledge?
Unfortunately, yes. In a statement, Our Father director Lucie Jourdan wrote that there are at least 44 additional male doctors from around the world who did the same thing as Cline.
“No consent. No respect,” she wrote. “Thanks to accessible DNA testing, these perpetrators are finally being caught and exposed, and forced into a spotlight they never imagined.”
Another documentary, HBO’s Baby God, tells the story of one of those doctors. Las Vegas-based fertility specialist Quincy Fortier also used his own sperm to inseminate unsuspecting women and may have fathered hundreds of children. If you can stomach another tale about a rogue fertility doctor, the 2020 film is streaming on HBO Max.
Is Donald Cline still a fertility doctor?
Cline worked as a fertility doctor in Indianapolis for 38 years before retiring in 2009.
Where is Donald Cline now?
Cline was charged with two counts of obstruction of justice in 2017 after he lied to investigators with the Indiana Attorney General’s office (the Netflix documentary reveals he denied ever using his own sperm in legal paperwork), but he didn’t get jail time. At the time, Indiana law didn’t specifically prohibit fertility doctors from using their own sperm. The Medical Licensing Board of Indiana revoked his license in 2018.
Cline is currently alive and in his 80s. Jourdan told The Guardian that “he’s active around his community. He’s going to grandchildren’s swim meets and things like that. There’s no hiding.”
Why did Cline do it?
This is a big one, and the documentary doesn’t provide a definitive answer. Here’s what we do know.
In the documentary, Ballard recounts a meeting between Cline and some of the siblings, where Cline apparently explained that he only used his own sperm to help mothers who he thought were desperate for a child, according to Ballard.
The kids have other theories.
What is Quiverfull?
Quiverfull is an ultra-conservative Christian movement mentioned in the film. Those in Quiverfull reject birth control and believe they can help spread the word of God by having as many children as possible. In 2009, NPR reported that Quiverfull was “a small group, probably 10,000 fast-growing families, mainly in the Midwest and South.”
In Our Father, Ballard draws a link between Cline and Quiverfull, but it’s not a strong one.
We learn in the film that Cline has an affinity for the Bible verse “Jeremiah 1:5,” and Ballard notes it’s “one of the Bible verses Quiverfull uses.” The verse is: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”
Cline sibling Julie Harmon makes another wild connection, saying Quiverfull, at the time of the siblings’ conception, focused on producing more members of the white race. “They were in fear that other races were infiltrating and the white race would eventually disappear,” she says. Then we hear from Ballard, who points out that most of the biological Cline kids have blond hair and blue eyes. “It’s almost like we’re this perfect Aryan clan,” she says. Again, there’s nothing super concrete here to link Cline to Quiverfull.
The film also shows Ballard explaining how she learned about the Quiverfull movement. She says the Indiana Attorney General’s Office sent her emails, she looked up the people who replied and everyone copied on the emails, and through that, she found that “one of the people with the state” had a “Quiverfull” email address. As this doesn’t really relate to Cline, I’m pretty confused (and I assume others will be, too) as to why the doc includes these details prominently at all.
The siblings acknowledge that without hearing the truth from Cline, they only have theories. “I don’t think we’ll ever know why he was doing it,” Ballard says.
Was it sexual?
Sibling Jason Hyatt also speculated about Cline’s motive: “Is it to further his career? … Is this some sort of sexual thing? I don’t know,” he says in the film. “I feel like he’s hiding something more sinister.”
So was it sexual? It’s implied in the doc that Cline collected his own sperm just before he inseminated patients. Jody Madeira, a law professor at Indiana University, notes in the film that “in order for him to produce this sperm sample, he had to masturbate in very close proximity to the office where a patient was waiting.” In a voiceover near the end, “Donald” says, “Was there a sexual connotation to it? Absolutely not.” It’s unclear if Cline is actually the one speaking in the recording. (An actor for Cline is used in other parts of the film to re-create scenes).
How did Cline covertly use his own semen so many times?
Sibling Matt White suggests in the film that someone must have known that Cline was inseminating women with his own sperm. “To get away with it for decades and no one knew anything. No one in the office? Come on,” he says. Robert Colver, Cline’s former partner at work, and Jan Shore, his former nurse, deny having any knowledge of Cline’s actions. Shore worked with Cline for 13 years.