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The Horrifying True Story of Our Father and the Disgraced Doctor Donald Cline

The crime, discovered over eight years ago, is now being retold through a new Netflix documentary.
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There’s a term used by the donor-conceived community of that time just after Christmas: sibling season. The reason? So many people are now gifted Ancestry.com or 23AndMe DNA tests as a ‘fun’ present for the festive season, but it actually ends up revealing family secrets... and extra, unexpected family members.

It was a 23andMe test taken by Jacoba Ballard in 2014 that eventually revealed the horror story she shared with a now estimated 90 half-siblings: an Indiana fertility doctor named Donald Cline had been using his semen to impregnate female patients without them knowing and without their consent.

This horrifying discovery has now been made into a Netflix documentary, Our Father, with Ballard revealing details about her intimate family history and how she, her mother and so many other women had been violated by Cline, the amoral doctor, who practised over a period of up to 40 years.

Who is Donald Cline and how did this grotesque practice start?

From the 1970s onwards, if you were having trouble conceiving and you lived anywhere near Indiana, chances are you’d have been pointed in the direction of Doctor Donald Cline. He was seen as the expert in fertility issues, and as one former patient/victim noted in The Atlantic: “His office was decorated with photos of babies he’d helped conceive—a mundane detail that seems unsettling in retrospect”. The “kind and gentle” doc had helped deliver healthy babies to many families over his career.

These parents were told that they were being given a donor’s sperm (Cline’s speciality was fresh sperm, rather than the frozen variety that other doctors used, again, another chilling red flag with hindsight) and Cline said the donors he used were from medical residents, and that he would only use each one for a total of three successful pregnancies. In some cases, couples were told that the male’s sperm would be used – meaning some parents had no idea that their child’s father was not the biological father.

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Photo by NETFLIX.

Cline exploited the taboos around the practice that existed back then and told patients that they should keep the fact that they used a sperm donor secret, and should never tell the child how they were conceived. In an interview with The Guardian, Our Father’s director, Lucie Jourdan said: “??It was a very specific directive that you never ever tell your children you had fertility issues or insemination. This was part of the dialogue he had with his patients. They were trusting their doctor to give them the right advice.”

DNA testing wasn’t invented until 1984, so in the 1970s, Cline must have presumed that there was no way that he would ever be caught out for his crimes. He certainly wouldn’t have accounted for the rise of DNA testing as part of online genealogy accounts that are so prevalent now, and what finally caught him out.

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How was Donald Cline caught and was he prosecuted?

It was Ballard’s DNA test that led her to start investigating, and her online family tree that she was building up from the results all kept leading back to the same name: Cline. When Ballard befriended some of the siblings she had found, several mentioned that their parents had been treated by Cline. The penny dropped thanks to the DNA confirmation: Cline hadn’t been using donor samples. Instead, he had been impregnating many women with his own semen. One victim, who had been treated by Cline, explained her disgust at this discovery: “I feel like I was raped 15 times.”

But, remarkably, when Ballard went to the authorities with this shocking discovery, she was largely ignored. The siblings then banded together to file a complaint against Cline with Indiana's attorney general about Cline's activities, which led to a criminal inquiry. However, there were no specific criminal charges he could be indicted on. According to The Atlantic: “He wasn’t charged with rape, he wasn’t charged with battery with bodily waste—Indiana considers that a crime only if it’s done ‘in a rude, insolent, or angry manner’. He wasn’t charged with criminal deception,”. In fact, there was no law stating that a doctor couldn’t inseminate his own patients with his own sperm.

Photo by NETFLIX.
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At the end in 2018, he was only convicted of two felonies: of hindering the investigation and of lying about using his own semen. He was fined just $500 and lost his medical licence – however, he’d been retired since 2009. Cline is still alive now, in his 80s, and has served no time for his malpractice. He also seemingly has no remorse for his actions, and has never explained why he did it. The documentary speculates it could be a god delusion, “a sick experiment” or even to raise a white supremicist “Aryan clan”.

As Jourdan told The Guardian: “He’s active around his community. He’s going to grandchildren’s swim meets and things like that. There’s no hiding. That’s the thing, he’s still out and about. In his head, I don’t think he thinks he’s done much wrong.”

How many children did he father?

It’s been estimated that he illegally fathered anywhere from 50 to 90 children, but that number keeps going up all the time, especially now with the release of the documentary. Ballard added: “We actually had a new sibling pop up the day the trailer dropped.”

FromEsquire UK

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