There are many nauseating moments in Our Father, Netflix’s latest true crime documentary. In fact, its 90-minute duration serves wave after wave of horror. First there is Jacoba Ballard's grisly discovery that she was secretly fathered by her mother’s fertility doctor, who impregnated patients without their knowledge or consent throughout the 1980s. Then there is the sheer scale of his atrocities – to this day, Ballard has 94 half-siblings and counting. Then there’s the horrifying motive behind his crimes. But arguably the most disturbing revelation of all is the knowledge that what he did was not technically illegal at the time the events took place.
"What made him go to work every day, masturbate and place it inside women unknowingly without their consent?" Ballard asks us viewers at home, visibly repelled by the words coming out of her month. The 'him' in question is Donald Cline, a prominent Indianapolis fertility expert and respected member of the community and church (which the documentary hammers home again and again) to whom all the evidence pointed when Ballard made her horrifying discovery back in 2014.
Ballard was an only child conceived via sperm donor. She had always been curious as to whether she had any long-lost siblings so she signed up for 23andMe, a DNA-testing, ancestry-mapping service. She expected maybe three potential hits to come back – the doctor had informed her mother that they only ever used one donor a maximum of three times, for obvious reasons – so why was she alerted to 10 siblings and 3,000 'close family' hits within a small radius? It was at that point she made the horrifying discovery that Cline was the common denominator, and the more she delved into it, the more nightmarish the truth.
Turns out, for decades in his clinic Cline had been destroying whatever samples he had promised, from donors and husbands alike. Then while the women were vulnerable – feet in stirrups, naked from the waist down – he would be masturbating in the room next door, later inserting his own semen into them.
Then there is the motive. It transpires that Cline was an elder of the church and somewhat of a religious fanatic, likely motivated by cult-like and white supremacist beliefs that celebrated individuals playing god and reproducing as many times as possible.
It gets worse. There is also the realisation that many of the siblings have been living within a 25-mile radius of each other, leading to the understandable fear that some may have accidentally coupled up over the years. The documentary speaks to distraught fathers and the psychological impact of finding out, decades later, that they aren't the biological parent of their child. And then there’s the fact that many of the siblings share debilitating autoimmune diseases inherited from Cline, genetic disorders that would have certainly been flagged in an actual approved donor and likely rejected. There are so many ways in which Cline violated the trust of those in his care.
"I was raped 15 times and didn’t even know it," one of the deceived mothers tells the camera. It’s the first time the word is used in the documentary, although there’s no doubt that this physical violation is exactly what Cline did. And the documentary makes plain the frustratingly flawed judicial system that offered no protection for vulnerable patients, as well as its reluctance to class what Cline did as sexual violation at all. Following investigations and a court hearing, Cline avoided prison completely and was eventually given a one-year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, meaning he was never punished for the crimes committed, only for denying that he committed them at all.
In 2018 the mothers and daughters successfully passed legislation in Indiana making illicit donor inseminations illegal. The documentary highlights that, shockingly, there is currently no federal law preventing it – likely because of the supposedly rare and unlikely circumstances of this case. But at the end of the documentary comes this revelation: "Thanks to at-home DNA testing, 44 additional doctors have been found to have used their own sperm to inseminate fertility patients." It is a sickeningly high statistic that begs the question of how many more cases are out there.
One such disturbing case in the UK was revealed to involve the Barton clinic in London, run by British biologist Dr Bertold Wiesner and his wife, obstetrician Dr Mary Barton, from the mid 1940s to the mid 1960s. It was one of the first clinics in the country to offer donor insemination. Decades later, genetic testing suggested that almost two-thirds of the 1,500 babies that the clinic helped women to conceive were Dr Wiesner's biological children.
Refinery29 UK reached out to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the UK's regulator overseeing fertility treatment and embryo research, to find out more about donor regulation in Britain. "If a doctor used his sperm in treatment of patients without their knowledge and consent, it would call into question whether he was fit to practice," a spokesperson iterated. "Fitness to practice issues are regulated by the General Medical Council so it would be down to the GMC to investigate this and take action if allegations were proven. Action could include striking him from the register.
"In the highly unlikely event that a doctor at a licensed fertility clinic used his own sperm in IUI or IVF treatment without the knowledge and consent of his patients, he would not be acting 'in pursuance' of the clinic’s licence and is likely to have been committing offences under the HFE Act [Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act]. The HFEA is not a prosecuting Authority, so if anyone in the UK were suspected of offences under the 1990 Act, the Authority would refer the matter to the police for investigation and it would be down to the police and Crown Prosecution to investigate and potentially prosecute."
There’s no ignoring the timing of Our Father’s release just as women's legal reproductive rights in the United States have taken a devastating blow. At the end of the day, there is no doubt that the freedom to control one's body is intrinsic to controlling one's life. At points, the documentary may feel like it is recalling an extreme story of decades ago, but the leniency of Cline's punishment is indicative of the same oppressive power structures that allow the restrictive grip exercised by men on women’s bodies to tighten ever further.
Our Father is available to watch on Netflix on 11th May