Ralph M. Tsong
“Our Father” Movie Review: An Unsettling Story of Fertility Fraud
Updated: May 18
Our Father” is a Netflix original documentary film directed by Lucie Jourdan. It follows the story of the former fertility specialist Dr. Donald Cline who deceptively inseminated dozens of patients with his own sperm between 1979 and 1986.
This documentary film raises the question about how the legal system views those seeking control over their own reproductive choices and restitution when that autonomy is violated.
Synopsis of the film
Our Father intercuts interviews with the siblings and Dr. Cline’s victims with re-enacted footage of some of their experiences. Although Dr. Cline was never interviewed, his courtroom testimony is recreated (or is shown).
Dr. Cline’s acts began being discovered when Jacoba Ballard, one of the victims of Dr. Cline’s deceptive sperm donations, recalled how at an early age she thought she was adopted, as she had her blonde hair and bright blue eyes compared to her family’s dark-hair and dark-features. She learned at an early age she was conceived via a sperm donor, who was supposedly a resident-in-training who had donated only a few times. Once at home DNA testing became available, she set out to find her half-siblings. From there, her life changed after she learned that she had seven half-siblings.
Jacoba later on reached out to her newfound family members. Researching the mystery of their shared relation, Jacoba and her siblings soon discovered with horror what their parents’ trusted doctor had done. The number of their confirmed siblings continued to grow to at least 94 as more people added their DNA to the database.
While Dr. Cline never reveals his motivations, the documentary film suggests Dr. Cline may have been motivated by his interest in an extreme Christian sect called “Quiverfull,” where it encourages followers to reproduce as prolifically as possible to meet God’s mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” and Dr. Cline, in addition to engaging with patients and staff in prayer before treatments, had an affinity for the verse Jeremiah 1:5 (“Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I knew you”).
What happened to Dr. Cline
In 2017, a criminal investigation was launched when four of the "children" filed a complaint against Dr. Cline to Indiana's Attorney General. However, during that time, there is no law or legal structure in place which criminalizes the act of a doctor inseminating a patient with his own sperm. Therefore, he could not be criminally charged for his deceptive insemination.
Cline was instead brought to trial facing two counts of felony obstruction of justice, for lying during the investigation. Despite pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice, he received no jail time and only a one-year suspended sentence and a $500 fine. He also lost his medical license, but he had retired nearly a decade.
Little is known about his whereabouts now, but he remains a free man.
Following the case of Dr. Cline, in 2019, Indianapolis enacted Senate Enrolled Act 174 which protects individuals and couples against fertility fraud and deception. The law makes it a level 6 felony if someone makes a misrepresentation involving a medical procedure, medical device or drug and human reproductive material. The law also creates a civil cause of action for fertility fraud, making it possible for victims to get reimbursed for the costs of the fertility treatment plus up to $10,000 in damages.
The law will also affect health care providers who use their reproductive material without the donor’s consent, or if the doctor uses the sperm or eggs in a manner the donor didn’t sign off on.
Recently, some victims/children of fertility fraud also spoke to AAAA surrogacy attorneys at the AAAA conference in May 2023 including Jacoba Ballard who was featured in “Our Father.
Dr. Cline’s case is not unique. In 2020, a Texas doctor was under investigation for allegedly impregnating multiple fertility clinic patients using his own sperm instead of the donor sperm they chose. Dr. Kim McMorries of Nacogdoches, Texas had fathered at least seven children of his clinic patients, with an eighth child from sperm he donated while he was medical student.
In his defense, Dr. McMorries stated that when this occurred, it was not considered wrong. However, the medical board sought to impose remedies including revocation of his medical license. To prevent this, the doctor filed a suit enjoining the medical board, citing a seven-year statute of limitations while also claiming that the board was being pressured by news coverage. Today, he is still actively practicing medicine.
This also prompted the state to pass a law criminalizing doctor using their own sperm to inseminate patients without their consent as sexual assault.
“Our Father” is chilling, cautionary tale which highlights the lack of legal recourse afforded to the children and parents who were victims of fertility fraud. This sort of donor fraud shakes families at the core because it violates the trust patients have in their doctor and the identity of their children. If you are interested in a different kind of documentary, Our Father is worth a watch.
The documentary film premiered on May 11, 2022, and has been watched for 42.6 million hours by viewers.
“Our Father” also shows us that the rapid development and ubiquity of DNA testing is changing the future of anonymous gamete donations and reminds us the importance to have written contracts in place, and a lawyer experienced and knowledgeable in fertility law to review or draft your egg or sperm donation contracts. Please contact Tsong Law Group for more information.