ReviewNetflix’s Our Father review: new documentary about a fertility doctor who secretly used his sperm to inseminate patients doesn’t dig deep enough
- Dr Donald Cline’s patients were led to believe they were being inseminated either with sperm from donors or their own husbands – it was actually his
- Our Father examines how his offspring tried to bring the fertility specialist to justice, but the show never digs deep and has several distasteful re-enactments
For years, Dr Donald Cline was one of the better-known fertility specialists in his Indianapolis community in the US state of Indiana. His patients were led to believe they were being inseminated either with sperm from donors or their own husbands.
A group of the siblings confronted Cline in person and he admitted to his actions, framing it as a good deed rather than a colossal violation of his patients’ consent. According to the siblings, he has been uninterested or unwilling to acknowledge what a destabilising event this has been for them. Some of them speculate that he may have passed along autoimmune disorders.
The ripple effects of what he did are substantial, for the siblings as well as their parents, and they met a staggering lack of concern or outrage from anyone in an official capacity. “It’s a sick individual who puts himself in a position to do that,” says one of the siblings.
The logistics are even worse. At the time Cline was practising medicine, sperm samples weren’t frozen but needed to be “live” and inseminated no more than an hour or so after ejaculation. That meant that Cline would go into his office, perform a sex act into a cup and, moments later, walk into an exam room, where he then injected his sperm into unwitting patients.
“I was raped and didn’t even know it,” is how one of the mothers puts it. The film includes recreations – a dubious decision in and of itself – and there is one scene all but showing the doctor’s office activities that feels especially misjudged. You don’t need to see an actor’s head bobbing vigorously to be disgusted by what Cline did.
It was Ballard who took the lead in attempting to hold Cline criminally liable for using his own sperm. Finally, a television reporter named Angela Ganote decided to investigate.
Even so, the prosecutor interviewed in Our Father said his hands were tied because, in his opinion, these were not cases of rape or battery. “There’s no crime that focuses on this particular act,” he says.
If you’ve watched enough Law & Order, you might recall a 1995 episode called “Seed” that centred on a similar crime, but this is where reality and Hollywood diverge; while the fictional prosecutors brainstormed a way to bring charges, that did not happen here.
Director Lucie Jourdan never digs into why fraud charges were never on the table, either. Cline did eventually face charges of obstruction of justice for lying to state investigators about fathering the siblings, but he was not charged with any crime for using his own sperm. He pleaded guilty in 2017 and received no jail time.
Most of the siblings have blond hair and blue eyes, and they ponder Cline’s motives. “It’s like we’re this perfect Aryan clan and it’s disgusting,” one says.
Whatever his reasons (Cline is not interviewed in the film), he did not want the siblings to go public with their story. But Ballard was undaunted and she’s a tremendous presence throughout. Every time a new sibling pops up on 23andMe, she reaches out to have the hard conversation, explaining the unusual results.
From a filmmaking standpoint, Our Father is not especially contemplative about the lives of these families who have been so hurt by Cline.
“Isn’t this terrible?” the documentary asks, while never digging much deeper. But it serves a specific purpose. It was important to let the siblings tell their story, said producer Michael Petrella in a recent interview.
“They’ve been made to feel they didn’t matter. Their pain didn’t matter. Their voice didn’t matter,” he said.