When an infertility doctor secretly makes himself the biological father of nearly 100 people, what kind of consequences does he face?
That is one of the many questions at the heart of Netflix’s new documentary “Our Father,” which follows the journey of some of Dr. Donald Cline’s now-adult biological children.
Cline, a fertility doctor, was believed to be one of the best in Indiana. So, it was only natural for couples to turn to him when they struggled to conceive.
As the documentary shows, Cline’s patients were told that the doctor would use the sperm of their husband for insemination or that they’d used a sperm donor; Cline further assured his patients that no sperm donor was ever used more than three times.
But, when the children of many of his patients began matching as “close relatives” on 23andMe decades later, they began to wonder if what their parents were told was true. Eventually, they discovered that the doctor had used his own sperm to impregnate patients without their knowledge.
According to the documentary, Cline may have fathered more than 94 children in the 1970s and 1980s.
Many of Cline’s biological “children” — including Jacoba Ballard — reached out to their half-siblings and put pressure on the local media and authorities for accountability in the case. They grew frustrated when they learned there weren’t many legal grounds on which Cline could be charged.
But eventually, he was nailed after he lied to state investigators. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to two counts of obstruction of justice for lying to investigators with the state attorney general's office, the Indianapolis Star reported at the time. He at first claimed that he did not act as a sperm donor without his patients’ knowledge, but later admitted to doing so; a DNA test also proved that he was lying.
Cline, who was a respected philanthropist and church elder at the time, served no jail time and his 365-day sentence was suspended — a decision that left many of his victims distraught. He was also ordered to pay a mere $500 fine.
There was no law in place in Indiana that would have made Cline's use of his own sperm without patients' knowledge a crime, The New York Times reported. But that has changed: in 2018, some of Cline's patients and their children successfully advocated for state legislation making illicit donor insemination illegal.
"I want medical professionals to be held accountable," Ballard, who is featured prominently in the documentary, told the Times in 2017. "As far as peace of mind? I'll never have that."
Cline surrendered his medical license in 2018 and has been barred from ever again practicing in the state of Indiana — but he'd already retired in 2009. Cline faced no further charges and his current whereabouts are unclear.