Our Father

Documentary on Netflix

I’m pretty certain this is streaming and we only get dvds from Netflix. Never-the-less, not for the first time, has a fertility doctor been accused of inseminating patients with his own sperm. So, yes, this is a true story. The Indiana fertility specialist, Dr Donald Cline, is the subject.

In a moment when the right to safe and informed reproductive care is under threat in the US, Our Father is particularly resonant given the questions it raises about how our legal system views those seeking control over their own reproductive choices, and restitution when that autonomy is violated.

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.

Jacoba Ballard grew up suspecting that she, the only blond, blue-eyed member of a family of brunettes, was adopted. When she was 10, her parents told her they had used donor sperm to conceive her. “I wanted a child so bad,” her mother, Debbie Smith, says, the pain clearly visible on her face. The Smiths went to Cline, who had a reputation as the best in what was then the new field of fertility treatment and artificial insemination. The good doctor – and devout Christian, church elder and respected member of the community – told them that medical students were used as donors, each no more than three times to limit any future problems with consanguinity (the medical term for unwitting siblings later having children together). The couple went ahead and nine months later Jacoba was born. “She’s my everything,” says Debbie.

Our Father includes interviews with eight 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.

One criticism of the documentary is that it gives too little space to the unresponsiveness of the district attorney’s office – alerted by Jacoba early on – and the extraordinary fact that it was impossible to prosecute Cline over what he did to the women because none of that amounted to a crime under the then-current law. Jacoba’s research reveals that one of the people in the DA’s office who might have been expected to follow up on her complaint is associated with the Christian fundamentalist movement Quiverfull, which encourages the faithful – or at least the faithful of certain coloring – to have as many children as possible and groom them for power so they can become ambassadors for God. Is it relevant that church elder Cline has produced what Jacoba likens to “this perfect Aryan clan”?

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 filmmakers behind 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. In 2017, he was brought to trial facing two counts of felony obstruction of justice, for lying during the 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 pled guilty, and received two suspended sentences (meaning he served no jail time), and a $500 fine.

In 2018, the siblings’ lobbying, led by Matt White and his mother Liz White, contributed to the passing of Indiana’s fertility-fraud law. There is still no federal law on the subject.

Acknowledging Time Magazine and The Guardian from which sections of today’s blog were taken.

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