Father of Lies

Our Father Exposes a Dark Underside of Assisted Reproductive Technology

Knowledge of what happened between your parents before you were born, or what technology they used so that you could be born, might elicit gratefulness, but it might also elicit more conflicted feelings. Yet many adult children of donor conception seem unwilling to face this truth.

A brief look at any Reddit group devoted to adults who were conceived through assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) will often yield results like this: “I just met my sibling group and it went amazing!” or “Mmeeting my donor father answered so many questions in my life.” Members often speak glowingly of finally getting answers or getting closure after years or even decades of uncertainty about their origins and whether or not they have half-siblings from their donor parent. Hardly anyone ever reports having had a bad experience meeting their donor siblings.

Not, that is, until highly publicized cases of fertility fraud began to garner media attention. One of these cases involved a doctor who inseminated patients with samples of his own sperm over a period of more than thirteen years, producing a sibling group with ninety-four known (to date) genetically matched children.

Our Father (Netflix documentaries—set age restrictions for 18+) tells the story of how fertility specialist Dr. Donald Cline betrayed his clients. Given the movie’s title, many viewers may expect—and I was one of them—an all-out attack on Christian sexual morality. This is not the tack the film takes, however. The title refers to God as father to provocatively highlight the way criminal behavior can even hide behind reassuring Christian symbolism.

Down the Sibling Rabbit Hole

The saga begins with the first-person account of Jacoba Ballard, the first of the sibling group to discover she was donor-conceived. A churchgoing midwestern soccer mom, Ms. Ballard relates that as a child, she was baffled by her blonde hair and light eye color that did not match her family. Jacoba asked her mother repeatedly if she had been adopted, a memory that surfaced when she finally learned in 2014 that her mother had sought help from a fertility center to conceive.

The Indianapolis Infertility Clinic promised Jacoba’s mother that she could become pregnant using artificial insemination. Artificial (or assisted) insemination is a medical procedure in which a sperm sample, either from the patient’s husband or from a third-party donor, is inserted into the woman’s body using a catheter. It is a commonly performed procedure in the United States and is not federally regulated. Jacoba’s mother, and many other women as it turns out, were told they were receiving their husband’s sperm, or that of a hand-picked donor, when they were actually being inseminated with samples from Dr. Cline himself.

As a result of her DNA test, Jacoba found that she was related to a high number of siblings she never knew she had. Of course, even the word “sibling” here is more than a little out of place, because each was a stranger to the other and shared no memories of vacations at the beach or playing catch in the backyard. They were genetic matches, though, and the genetic material they shared could be traced to immediate relatives of Donald Cline – his mother, to be specific. The infertility clinic had lied to their mothers about insemination and had lied to them about their medical records. As the narrative of the film proceeds, the growing and seemingly astronomical number of Cline siblings opens like an empty and unfillable gulf.

Christian Kitsch vs. Scriptural Principles

The emptiness serves, however, to make the movie’s most dramatic contrast: between the professed Christianity of Dr. Cline and Scriptural truth. The film highlights not only the way that Cline violated his Hippocratic Oath by deceiving his patients, but how he violated Scripture’s commandments against lying, adultery, and covetousness. But just as important as these are Cline’s repeated offenses against charity: he was proud and arrogant toward the people who sought his help, even his own biological children. In one scene he seats all the donor offspring at a table and issues to all in turn a judgment on their relative degrees of success — “I guess he wanted to see which one of us had made it,” said Ballard.

The film exposes the red thread of worldly pride that led Cline to abuse his position as a doctor. The opening scene shows a cheaply pine-paneled wall in Dr. Cline’s examination room covered with Christian knickknacks, most prominently a framed cross stitch of Jeremiah 1:5, which reads, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” This visually confronts viewers with the fact that Cline not only violated his professional duties, but he also abused the spiritual authority of Scripture by appropriating unto himself the procreative authority given by God to married men and women.

The Psychological Consequences for Offspring of ARTs

Cline’s own children, born of his egoism, are presented in a way consistent with a Christian ethic of suffering and humility. The film shows the psychological suffering of identity and relationship bewilderment the donor-conceived adults experienced. In one scene, Jacoba works at her desk littered with newspaper clippings while the song All My Tears, written in folk idiom often associated with the poor or working-class Christianity, plays in the background. The poverty hinted at here serves as a metaphor for the damaging loss of kinship and identity through ARTs on the people so conceived.

Jacoba and her siblings are portrayed as people who are suffering, but who ultimately triumph because they do not identify with their victimization. Making an auditory reference to the song’s implicit claim that “the tribulations of this life do not matter,” the filmmakers choose to let the viewer decide what should matter to the public at large regarding the use of ARTs.

Magnificat for the Childless

Women’s desires to overcome infertility and have children with the help of assisted reproductive technology is presented as something that all Christians can celebrate. But the film’s producers do gently introduce some needed criticism toward the women who wanted their infertility healed with a relatively convenient procedure. Using the metaphor of poverty applied to childlessness, the film suggests that the women’s emotional suffering made them more prone to believe exaggerated claims or overlook suspicious practices than they might otherwise have been. As an antidote, the movie offers humility as a Scriptural principle that should have guided both the fertility doctor and his clients.

Infertility, the condition that made Cline’s victims vulnerable in the first place, can be an overlooked topic in the church, but the Bible has much to say about childlessness. As much as it is a physical deficiency, infertility can also have implications for a couple’s spiritual lives. A better approach for Christian couples would be to trust in the sovereignty of God, limit their options to treatments that do not involve using artificial means to produce a human life, and consider ways to serve the needs of already-born children in need of parents.

is a once and future homeschooling mother who currently lives in Germany. She has enjoyed teaching both in the home and in various community colleges in the midwestern United States, while engaged in foster-to-adopt ministries with her husband. Currently she writes about issues relevant to reproduction and motherhood from home.

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