Spoiler Alert: Our Father (2022) – Article contains true crime and assault contentFertility scams are as old as fertility treatment itself, but until recently it often went undetected. In its usual form, it involves swapping one person’s sperm for another without informing the patient. Many cases have been uncovered since the advent of ancestry kits allowed those curious about their family history to compare their DNA to that of others online – a manifestation of the modern obsession with genealogy that has made such shows a hit Who do you Think You Are? and African American Life.
But as a Netflix documentary Our father Version released this week shows that the revelations that emerge from it can sometimes be a lot darker than expected.
The Unknown Crime
Netflix is no stranger to controversial documentaries, however Our father takes the controversy to new extremes. Fertility fraud has been the subject of several documentaries over the past five years, most famously filmmaker Hannah Olson’s 2020 film for HBO. baby god, which covered the activities of Quincy Fortier, a Nevada doctor who made headlines after he was accused of using his own sperm to fertilize dozens of his patients at a Las Vegas facility. He was sued by several of his alleged descendants in the 2000s and settled out of court before his death (in his 90s) in 2006.
Last year, Dutch filmmaker Miriam Guttmann released Het Zad van Karbaat (The seed of Karbaat), a short documentary series about Jan Karbaat, a Dutch doctor whose reputation as the country’s leading fertility doctor seemed secure – until it was revealed that he had got more than 65 of his patients pregnant in the 1970s and 1980s. In the series, several ex-patients reported being abused by Karbaat, who died in 2017.
A similar story of undiscovered wrongdoing is presented in Our father. The film tells the journey of Jacoba Ballard, who decided in 2014 to research her family tree with a 23andMe DNA test. As over half a dozen half-siblings began to appear near her, she began to dive deeper. She discovered that the mothers of all had sought fertility treatment from Donald Cline, a well-known fertility doctor in Indianapolis. When confronted with the evidence, Cline — by then retired — gave short shrift, initially outright denying allegations of wrongdoing and refusing to agree to a DNA test.
When questioned, he eventually admitted that he had used his own sperm to fertilize patients when no other was available, insisting no more than ten people were involved.
It turned out to be gross distortion. At the time of writing, 94 people conceived with Cline’s sperm have been identified. The documentary lurches from one uncomfortable revelation to the next, and Ballard’s dignified but heartbreaking testimony is sympathetically told by the creators. She and many others affected by Cline’s activities tell their stories in their own words.
A lack of regret
Some of the men found to have committed fertility fraud acknowledged their wrongdoing, albeit in a nominal manner. When Our father Shows, what was really shocking about Cline — a well-known local philanthropist and church elder — was his complete lack of remorse.
Worse still, despite Cline’s protestations when his activities were investigated, the fact that he suffered from an autoimmune disease meant dozens of the children he fathered also had similar conditions. According to one of his accusers, when he finally met several of his children at a prearranged meeting, he was carrying a concealed gun on his hip and preparing to recite scriptures to them. Ballard had none of it: “You will not use my God to justify your actions,” she replied.
Trying to cover up the truth
Perhaps the most astounding aspect of this story is the way in which Cline tried to get the very people whom he previously denied were related by blood to help him prevent news of his actions from reaching the press . When a local television station launched an investigation, Cline contacted Ballard and asked her to stop working with the reporters.
Ultimately, Cline escaped justice for a simple but amazing reason. At the time he carried out the scam, fertility cheating was not a crime. In fact, as of this writing, fewer than a dozen US states have enacted laws against it. Although Indiana was the first company to do so in 2019, based on research conducted by Ballard and others affected by Cline’s actions.
Featuring an engaging, heartbreaking story and straight forward storytelling, Our father is a highly watchable, if deeply unpleasant, addition to Netflix’s long line of quality documentaries.
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