A shocking true crime documentary about a wicked fertility doctor
How would you react if you discovered you had a sibling that you hadn’t already known about? You might be elated at the news but then again, you could be shocked and upset by this revelation.
The surprise of one sibling is startling enough but what if you discovered you had 94 brothers and sisters? That’s the reality for the men and women of Our Father, a brand new documentary streaming on Netflix.
Former fertility doctor Doctor Cline is the reason why these people have a family that is significantly larger than the national average as he used his own sperm to artificially inseminate a countless number of women during the 1970s and 80s. He told them the sperm came from medical residents at the nearby hospital but this was a blatant lie.
Why did he do what he did? The documentary tries to shed light on this but there is no conclusive answer. There is the assumption that he was part of the ‘Quiverfull’ movement, a radical religious group that considered large families a blessing from God. They based their theology on Psalm 24:
“Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.”
By producing so many children, Cline sent out many arrows into the world, but was this the reason behind his mass insemination? It’s possible. Cline was a man of good character and an elder at his Christian church so his reasoning may have come from a distorted view of his faith. It’s also possible that he was driven by his need to create life. When he was a young man, Cline knocked down and killed a young girl, so his feelings of guilt may have been the catalyst for his wrongdoing. This is what is suggested in the documentary anyway.
Cline was eventually arrested for his crime and sentenced in court but he has never given a proper answer as to why he did what he did. From the footage shown in the documentary, we hear him state that he used his own sperm to help the women in his care but his words come across as hollow. It is clear that he is hiding his true motives, which is as frustrating for the viewer as it is for the many people who were the offspring of the women he inseminated.
At the centre of the documentary is Jacoba Ballard, a woman who discovered she was one of Cline’s biological children after taking a DNA test. She soon realised that she wasn’t the only one when she investigated further and discovered she had numerous half-siblings. Some of these people are also interviewed, and like Jacoba, they are clearly outraged by the doctor’s actions.
Cline isn’t the only one put under the spotlight. There is also a focus on the American legal system and its failings. It took a long time for the County Prosecutors’ office to investigate Cline, despite the attempts by the siblings to bring his crimes to light. When the case eventually did go to court, not all of the evidence against him was admissible and the judge seemed to be sympathetic of the procreating doctor. As such, justice was never fully served. He left court with two suspended sentences (meaning he never went to jail) and a $500 fine.
The story of Our Father is a sad one. Both the siblings and the mothers at the heart of the narrative never received full justice for what Cline did to them. They didn’t have the legal protection they asked for when they first sought help and there is still no federal law in place to cover the crime of ‘fertility fraud.’ For women who, in their own words, were effectively raped by the doctor, this is a shocking indictment of US law.
The documentary intercuts interviews with the siblings and Cline’s victims with re-enacted footage of some of their experiences. Cline is never interviewed but we do get to see and hear him via the police and courtroom footage that is spliced into the film. It’s fascinating stuff but it rarely exceeds the level of a salacious news story.
We get a lot of insight into the effects Cline’s crime had on the siblings but more could have been said about the legal complexities of the case. The failings of the justice system when it comes to protecting the rights of women who have been medically violated could have been explored more deeply too. Despite these narrative flaws, the doc is still powerful and it does what I suppose director Lucie Jourdan intended, to bring the sibling’s stories, and their mothers, into the public spotlight.
Fact is always scarier than fiction when it comes to crime stories. The fact that Cline was able to get away with what he did for so long is shocking. Sadly, there have been cases of other doctors like him who, for whatever reason, have artificially inseminated women with their own sperm. We trust our doctors to care for and protect us. We don’t expect to discover they have intentionally harmed us. And we certainly don’t expect to discover our doctors are also our fathers!
Our Father isn’t a perfect documentary but it is worth a watch, not only to understand more about the plight of the people featured in the doc but to act as a reminder that we should all be mindful when it comes to finding medical care.
Verdict - 7/10