Netflix's 'Our Father' Grapples with the Perils of Artificial Insemination
Here's how one doctor used his own sperm to inseminate patients without their consent
Netflix’s recently released documentary Our Father follows the rabbit hole down just one of the new quandaries the fertility industry has introduced to parenthood. The documentary details the journey of Jacoba Ballard in her journey uncovering the truth: that she and at least 93 others had been conceived using not donor sperm, but that of their mother’s fertility doctor. Through DNA testing services such as 23andme, Jacoba gradually uncovered the existence of nearly 100 half-siblings decades after Dr. Cline fraudulently inseminated their mothers with his own sperm rather than that of their husbands or donors as promised. The film unravels like a horror flick, but it is all too real.
Our Father serves to highlight the damages that artificial reproductive technologies can wreak on the children they create, the ethical dilemmas that arise from even straightforward employment of these technologies, and the deeply disturbing ways in which they can go wrong. Several siblings shared the fear that they might have unknowingly dated a half-sibling (a fear that is not unfounded, as at least one married couple has discovered they were fathered by the same donor). A few siblings realized that they already knew one another socially. One even made the harrowing discovery that Cline, her own fertility doctor, was actually her father.
Nearly all of the Cline siblings interviewed describe a lost sense of identity. Regarding the revelation that she was not genetically related to the man who raised her, one interviewee comments that it “completely washed away” her identity. This pain and anguish is echoed by donor-conceived adults even when everything goes right, as observed in research studies and other documentaries such as Anonymous Father’s Day.
And while over $1.3 million has been paid in legal settlements to the siblings and their families, there is little in the way of legal recourse to prosecute Cline for what ought to be considered criminal wrongdoing – laws against “insemination rape” simply don’t exist. Cline was eventually convicted of 2 counts of felony obstruction of justice and paid $500 in fines. While Indiana law has been amended to prohibit fertility doctors from inseminating patients with their own sperm, there is currently no federal law protecting women from these kinds of violations.
While Our Father offers critical insight into a perverse problem with the fertility industry, it fails when it attempts to explain Cline’s actions. The filmmakers strongly imply that Cline’s motivations arise from his Christian faith, using everything from the film’s title to its heavy religious imagery and emphasis on his standing as an elder in his church to strengthen the association. They even attempt to link Cline to the Quiverfull cult. This explanation for Cline’s violations of his patients is disappointing and ultimately uncompelling. While it adds an aesthetic “creep factor” as a unifying theme throughout the film, it serves as a distraction from the true ethical perils raised by the fertility industry’s growing popularity.