I was anxious to watch the new Netflix film, Our Father, which was just released on May 11. I have been writing about the ethics of sperm and egg donor conception for many years, even producing my own documentary, Anonymous Father’s Day, which features voices and stories of people born from “anonymous” sperm donation. I put anonymous in quotations because, after all, sperm and egg donation isn’t anonymous. DNA always traces us back to our biological roots and with the advent of companies like 23andMe there really is no such thing as anonymity. I was hoping that this film would do justice to the ethics of anonymous sperm donation and the rights and well-being of the people created this way – and the film delivered.
I’ll try not to give away any big spoilers, but Our Father does not shy away from unpeeling the many layers of lies, secrets, deception, anguish, and identity crisis the individuals featured in this film are exposed to. Following primarily the story of Jacoba Ballard, who always felt like she must have been adopted because she had blond hair and blue eyes while others in her family were dark complexioned, we learn that at age 10 her mother told her the truth; she was conceived by anonymous sperm donation because her father was infertile. Debbie Pierce, Jacoba’s mother, was a young woman who wanted to be a mother. She was advised to go and see Dr. Donald Cline, who was well regarded in his community and seen as the “go to” doctor for couples struggling with infertility. Cline assured all his patients that he used the sperm from medical students and always limited the donors to three donations because they didn’t want a lot of children born that would have the same father and might grow up and accidentally marry a half-sibling. This was before the time when sperm could be collected, frozen, and shipped all around the world. His nurse describes how she would walk across the street to the hospital to get the fresh sperm sample, tuck it in her bra to keep it warm, and get it back to the office quickly where a woman was waiting for the artificial insemination.
When the young Ballard learns of her donor conception it is well before the advances in DNA testing we have today. Companies like 23andMe and Ancestry were not around. As you know, with time DNA testing became readily available for home use and it was then that Ballard described seeing TV ads for home tests. In 2014 she had her DNA tested and here is where her journey of discovery finally begins to unravel a dark secret. She describes getting her results back in the Fall of 2014 and immediately discovered she had 7 half-siblings. She wondered if Dr. Cline only allowed donors to donate three times, how could there be 8 total children? She describes calling Dr. Cline on the phone and her shock that he personally answered the phone. Cline explained he’s not her biological father, he is of no use in helping her find her biological father and that all the records had been destroyed and wished her “good luck” in her search.
Ballard follow-up her investigation by filing a complaint with the Indiana Attorney General’s office but sadly she was met with indifference. Finally, she reaches out to a local Fox News TV journalist, Angela Ganote. Ganote thinks there is a story worth telling, and gets permission from her editors to cover this local news story. Ganote reaches out to Cline asking him to volunteer to a DNA test, a sure way to clear up any concern that he is the father of these eight children. Cline refuses.
Not willing to give up, Ballard and one of her half siblings she connected with through DNA testing reach out to Cline’s adult children. Shockingly, Cline’s son tells them that their father admitted to using his own sperm, but only when he was unable to find a donor, and he states that he used his own sperm, no more than 10 times.
Ballard and her other half-siblings press on, wanting to find others like their selves all while pursuing justice through either the state Attorney General or the Marion County Prosecutor’s office. The problem is none can see a clear legal way to bring a case against Cline. What law has been broken?
Their story continues, sibling 14 is found, sibling 22 is found, sibling 33 is found. They describe the gut punching reality of calling these strangers to say, “Hello, I’m your sister” or “Hello, I’m your brother” knowing this one simple phone call will upset this person’s whole world. One woman, who was a patient of Cline’s, describes feeling raped by Cline because she never consented to him using his sperm and knowing that moments before he inseminated her, he was in a different room masturbating to get a sample. One young woman, born of Cline’s sperm, remembers having to tell her father who had raised her, her whole life, that he wasn’t her biological father. Her father said, “He’s taken everything away from me.” Another young woman, who was born with a twin sister, from Cline’s sperm, recounts that as a young woman Cline was her own Ob/Gyn doctor and how awful it was knowing what he did to her mother and father years ago, and he was now her physician. She chokes back tears as she tries to describe the unimaginable, having your biological father, examining you in the most doctor-patient private way.
In the end, it’s a legal loophole that lands Cline with two felony convictions as he had lied to the Attorney General in his statements saying he had never used his own sperm. For that he was accused and convicted of obstruction of justice, fined $500, and with no jail time served.
You can see the crestfallen faces of these young men and women as the verdict is given as justice, in their mind, was not served.
The film ends by telling us these victims were successful in 2018, making illicit sperm donation illegal in Indiana. Forty-four more doctors have since been exposed as using their own sperm with Cline being the most prolific, 94 and counting.
Our Father shows that, unlike Hollywood’s film, The Kids Are All Right, it shows that the children, their mothers and fathers who raised them, are not all right either.
BREAKING NEWS: Since writing this review, an important decision has been reached: As of May 18, Dr. Donald Cline has been ordered to pay more than $1.35 million in civil suits related to his numerous fertility fraud charges.
- Jennifer Lahl is founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network. Lahl couples her 25 years of experience as a pediatric critical care nurse, a hospital administrator, and a senior-level nursing manager with a deep passion to speak for those who have no voice. Lahl’s writings have appeared in various publications including Cambridge University Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News, and the American Journal of Bioethics. As a field expert, she is routinely interviewed on radio and television including ABC, CBS, PBS, and NPR. She is also called upon to speak alongside lawmakers and members of the scientific community, even being invited to speak to members of the European Parliament in Brussels to address issues of egg trafficking; she has three times addressed the United Nations during the Commission on the Status of Women on egg and womb trafficking.