During the 1970s and ‘80s, a fertility specialist in Indiana named Dr. Donald Cline inseminated dozens of patients with his own sperm, without their knowledge or consent. A new documentary tells the stories of several of these women, as well as his (at most) 94 biological kids. Our FatherThe film, starring Alicia Keys, premiered in May on Netflix.
The film, which features interviews with the parents and their children, as well as others close to the situation, chronicles the siblings’ path to uncovering the truth of their biological parentage, and spotlights their fury and resolve as they failed to see Cline answer for his crimes in court. At a time when reproductive rights in the United States are under attack, Our Father It is especially pertinent because of the implications it has on how our legal system treats those who want to control their own reproductive options and what happens when this autonomy is compromised.
Here’s what to know about Our Father.
One woman found out she was half-sibling to dozens
Jacoba Ballard’s life changed after she took an at-home DNA test and learned she had seven half-siblings. After reaching out to her newfound family members and researching the mystery of their shared relation, Ballard and her siblings soon discovered with horror what their parents’ trusted doctor had done. The number of confirmed siblings continued to grow as more people added their DNA to 23andMe’s database. Each time she saw a new connection appear on her profile, she’d steel herself before reaching out to deliver the news. “I know I’m going to call them and I’m going to ruin their life,” she says in the documentary.
“It just completely washes away your identity,” Julie Harmon, another sibling, says. “You really have no idea who you are anymore.”
Our FatherInterviews with 8 of the 94 siblings. Because of Cline’s lack of cooperation and the unknown number of patients he had the opportunity to inseminate up until he stopped practicing in 2009, there is no way to know for sure how many siblings there may be.
Julie Harmon is in Our Father
Our FatherDonald Cline is accused of being motivated by religious beliefs
Our Father suggests Cline may have been motivated by ideology born of his affiliation with an extremist Christian sect called “Quiverfull,” which encourages followers to reproduce as prolifically as possible to meet God’s mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” and install adherents in positions of power. Surveying the blonde hair and blue eyes of many of Cline’s offspring, the film briefly meditates on whether Cline’s crusade may have had white supremacist underpinnings (Quiverfull ideology, which promotes patriarchal gender ideology and other conservative ideals and bemoans European population decline, certainly seems to).
The film emphasizes how Cline’s faith, which developed after he accidentally struck and killed a young girl with his car, pervaded his practice as a doctor. He had his staff recite prayers together, advised patients to pray on their treatment choices, decorated his office with Christian sayings, and had an affinity for the verse Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I knew you.”), which is often featured in material extoling the Quiverfull lifestyle. Cline did not comment publicly on the tradition.
Justice for victims is lacking
Our Father’s main focus is on highlighting the lack of legal recourse afforded to the siblings and their parents. By the time the children of Cline’s former patients began to uncover the extent of his crimes in 2015, he was well into retirement, living in Indianapolis, Indiana. They contacted the offices of the Marion County prosecutor and attorney general of Indiana, asserting Cline’s medical practices were tantamount to rape and asking for an investigation, but proceedings were slow, much to their frustration.
Cline continued to live as an active member of the church and a pillar in the community while they waited for the authorities. Cline performed baptisms in the backyard of his swimming pool. Indirectly, Cline threatened the siblings with retribution if they tried to press charges against him. The lug nuts disappeared off Ballard’s car one day, she shares in the film. Harmon claims that her hard drive was suddenly deleted of any mentions of Cline and that all her research disappeared overnight. Heather Woock (her sibling) began to receive phone calls asking if Harmon was interested in buying a plot in a cemetery.
Jacoba Ballard is in Our Father
The county prosecutors did not investigate Cline. It was disappointing for his siblings and the families of the inseminated women. The siblings hoped that an investigation of Cline’s medical records would provide enough evidence to support rape charges. Cline was not accused of rape, but prosecutors said that he did inseminate his own sperm with the consent and knowledge of the women.
“I don’t deny that it was a sexual violation, [but] ‘Dr. Cline committed rape,’ is a legal assertion that was not true, and I wasn’t going to put it on paper with my signature,” Tim Delaney, who was working in the prosecutor’s office in 2015, says in the film. “The individuals touched by this were very emotional and had a feeling I [was there] to deliver catharsis. I wasn’t.”
“I was raped 15 times and didn’t even know it,” former Cline patient Liz White says during her interview, a wrenching counterpoint. “There was no consent. He didn’t give me a choice.”
Behind the scenes filmmakers Our Father, including director/producer Lucie Jourdan, say they were moved to tell the story of the siblings and their parents in order to help them condemn Cline’s actions to a broad audience when it became clear the court had failed.
Cline was not being pursued for his crime, as is the situation in America’s justice system. It was therefore necessary to bring him to trial for another offense. Cline was charged with felony obstruction and lying in the course of an investigation. The obstruction of justice charges meant that no evidence related to Cline’s actions toward his former patients was admissible—though those actions constituted the injustice for which the siblings and their parents were truly seeking restitution. Cline plead guilty and was sentenced to two suspension sentences, which means he did not serve any jail time and paid a $500 penalty.
Our Father tells the story of a violation so apparently novel that until the siblings and parents affected by Cline’s crimes brought their case to court and lobbied for protections, there was no law prohibiting his actions. In 2018, the siblings’ lobbying, led by Matt White and his mother Liz White, contributed to the passing of Indiana’s fertility-fraud law. It is currently not subject to any federal legislation.
While this story continues, Our Father depicts is relatively unique, the violation of a person’s ability to choose the circumstances under which they become pregnant, and the lack of legal protection of that ability, are not. Cline’s decision, seemingly motivated by extremist religious beliefs, was made by a person with power, on behalf of many without. Our Father ultimately succeeds in its mission of bringing the siblings’ story into the spotlight—and presciently emphasizes the fraught framework by which it is surrounded.
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