Since she was a teenager, Jacoba Ballard had known that she was conceived via donor sperm, and figured she might have one or two half-siblings out there somewhere. In 2014, when she was 33, she registered for an online forum for adoptees and donor-conceived children, and it didn’t take long before she found another woman whose mother had also received fertility treatment from Dr. Donald Cline, a respected Indianapolis provider. But what began as an interest in her own origins slowly led her down a dark path discovering one man’s twisted secret—and 94 (and counting) of her own half-siblings. New Netflix documentary Our Father tells the story of how DNA testing brought Donald Cline’s use of his own sperm in dozens of his own patients throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s to light.
After Jacoba found one half-sibling, the dominoes began to fall quickly. A DNA test revealed to Jacoba that she had eight half-siblings—a number that contradicted what her mother had told her, which is that each medical resident sperm donor had only been used a maximum of three times. Additionally, the initial eight half-siblings ranged seven years in age, longer than most medical residencies last. One common name among relatives that kept popping up on 23andMe was Cline—and slowly, a realization began to dawn on the group of half-siblings. Their mothers’ shared fertility doctor had been swapping donor sperm (or even the sperm of their own fathers) out for his own in his patients from the mid-70s up until the late-80s. The half-siblings began reaching out to Cline’s family, and eventually, his son responded. He brokered a meeting between six of the half siblings and Donald Cline, who admitted to using his own sperm and read Bible verses to the group of his biological children.
The number of siblings continued to pile on as 23andMe became more popular—thirty, fifty, and now as many as 94. But there was no law in Indiana at the time which forbade a doctor from using his own sperm in his patients, and so no law upon which Donald Cline could be charged with a crime. Still, some of his biological children filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office, which began an inquiry. Cline responded to the Indiana AG’s office and denied using his own sperm initially. A DNA sample quickly disproved that.
In September 2016, Cline was charged with just two counts of felony obstruction of justice, for obstructing the investigation and lying to investigators. He was fined $500, sentenced to a year of probation, and lost his medical license, though he had already been retired since 2009. If he hadn’t initially lied to the investigators, he might never have been charged with anything at all. Cline’s biological children brought forth a bill in Indiana that would make misrepresentation in a medical procedure a felony, in hopes to create protections against fertility fraud and deception in the future. In May of 2019, it was signed into law.
Now in his eighties, Cline has kept a low profile since his actions have been brought to light, though he likely lives in the vicinity of hundreds of his biological offspring and their children. “Did you really think … that we wouldn’t meet?,” one of the half siblings told The Atlantic in 2019. “That we wouldn’t maybe date? That we wouldn’t have kids who might date? Did you never consider that?”
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