The Evil Christian-Cultist Doctor Who Secretly Fathered 94 Children
A new Netflix documentary tells the sickening true story of Dr. Donald Cline, a fertility specialist who inseminated patients with his own sperm—resulting in at least 94 children.
Indiana fertility specialist Dr. Donald Cline has never served a day in prison. Nonetheless, Our Father doles out a stinging serving of Netflix justice, laying bare the renowned physician’s practice of deceptively inseminating patients with his own sperm, the result being the birth of 94 children and counting. He was a monster in the guise of a savior, and Lucie Jourdan’s outraged and heartfelt documentary (May 11) suggests that his conduct was at least partly the byproduct of his faith—which, apparently, may have been wrapped up in the cult-y (and white nationalist-y) conservative Christian movement known as Quiverfull.
The Quiverfull theology encourages families to procreate as much as possible in order to swell the ranks of God’s disciples, who in the central metaphor are the arrows shot out into the world by pious parents. The underlying motivation here is often racist: white Christians must repopulate the planet with their own chosen kind, lest it be taken over by darker-skinned heathens. According to Our Father, Cline’s relationship with Quiverfull is circumstantial at best, implied via the email address of someone tangentially connected to him. Still, the fact that he was a church elder who secretly created an army of blonde-haired, blue-eyed children and who endlessly recited one of Quiverfull’s favorite lines of scripture—Jeremiah 1:5, which reads, “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you”—lends credence to the idea that he was driven by wacko religious convictions to carry out a creepy quasi-The Boys from Brazil mission.
Whether Cline was an extremist or not, Our Father makes a strong case that he was a cretin with a twisted God complex. Renowned throughout Indiana as one of the field’s luminaries, Cline was a serious and respected doctor whose office walls were lined with religious passages and homilies, and who was seen by his long-time nurse Jan Shore as a “stern father figure.” Before 1985, fresh sperm was used in fertility procedures, and it was Cline’s modus operandi to elicit donor samples from the residents who worked at the hospital across the street from his office. As Shore recalls, because the samples had to be kept at room temperature, she would personally transport them back to Cline by storing them in her bra. It was a somewhat makeshift operation, but one that thrived, and since Cline promised clients that he never used a donor more than three times—to prevent the community from becoming overrun with unbeknownst-to-each-other biological relatives—he was trusted by just about everybody.
That began to change courtesy of Jacoba Ballard, who knew that Cline had helped her mother become pregnant, and who years earlier had been told by Cline that she might have one or two biological half-siblings. At age 35, she purchased a 23andMe test kit hoping to discover a brother or sister, only to receive results that specified that she had seven DNA matches. This struck her as odd and disconcerting, and she soon developed lines of communication with those matches, all of whom joked about the far-fetched notion that Cline might be their biological dad. All kidding stopped, though, when this group dug deeper into their paternal history, and found a second cousin named Sylvia who revealed to them that one of the surnames in her family tree was Cline’s mother’s maiden name—and that Cline himself was her cousin.
It wasn’t long before numerous additional Cline offspring came out of the woodwork, stunned to learn via 23andMe that they had been fathered by the doctor. Julie Harmon (#14), Matt White (#17), Heather Woock (#22), Lisa Shepherd-Stidham (#33), Jason Hyatt (#48), Carrie Foster (#53) and Alison Kramer (#61) all recount their stories of shock, revulsion and fury in Our Father, as do many of their mothers, who make clear that, while they were undressing and preparing for procedures in one room, Cline was next door masturbating to create fresh samples for insemination. Misrepresentation and violation don’t come starker than this, and yet when confronted with his misdeeds, Cline first downplayed the scope and severity of his action to Jacoba, and then begged her to keep things quiet in order to protect his marriage and reputation as a community leader.
At separate meetings with Jacoba and some of her siblings, and at a sit-down with local Fox59 reporter Angela Ganote, Cline showed up with a gun on his hip—a veiled threat that went hand-in-hand with his insinuating line of questioning. Our Father is a damning portrait of an individual who took heinous advantage of his position to go forth and multiply, and who felt few qualms about his behavior. It’s not clear if Cline believed he was helping those in need, fulfilling a sick sexual fantasy, or executing what he imagined was a divine plan. Yet there’s no escaping his villainy, which Jourdan catalogues through a combination of archival photos and news segments, talking-head interviews with some of his progeny, dramatic recreations (occasionally featuring Jacoba), and recorded audio conversations between Jacoba and Cline that expose his cold, naked self-interest.
The tragedy at the heart of Our Father is the irreparable damage done to these families and individuals, be it children who have to reconfigure their sense of identity, mothers who were lied to and physically wronged by their physician, or fathers who must accept that their parentage is devoid of a biological component. Just as disgusting, however, is the fact that, until 2018, there were no statutes on the Indiana books that categorized Cline’s conduct as criminal. The best Jacoba and company could do was charge him with making false statements to the attorney general, and even then, a lenient judge—ostensibly swayed by Cline’s friends in high places, as well as the opinion that, in the final tally, he had done more good than harm—saddled him with no jail time and a paltry $500 fine.
Thankfully, Our Father indicates that the law has since changed in Indiana. Although for Cline, his lasting legacy likely won’t be defined by any courtroom judgments but, rather, by this damning and readily available streaming-service documentary.