From an early age, Jacoba Ballard wondered if she was adopted. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed child just felt “different” from her parents, who had brown hair and darker complexions.
When she was 10 years old, Ballard’s mom, Debbie Pierce, told her that she had been conceived by artificial insemination using donor sperm.
Pierce had gone to one of the top fertility specialists in Indianapolis, Dr. Donald Cline, in 1979. As Pierce remembers in the new Netflix documentary “Our Father,” Cline told her he’d look for a donor who resembled her husband among the medical students who provided sperm for his clinic.
Jan Shore, a nurse who worked for Cline for 13 years, recalls in the film going to the hospital across the street to pick up specimens from residents, tucking them into her bra to keep them warm for the walk back.
Having grown up an only child, Ballard ultimately visited Cline herself in a quest to find out if she had any siblings out in the world, the thought of a brother or sister appealing to her.
Cline was “very straight-forward, matter-of-fact, no empathy,” she says in “Our Father.” Ballard says Cline told her that her mother’s decades-old records had long since been destroyed, and that he wished her luck but couldn’t help.
But Ballard wasn’t about to give up on the idea that she might have a larger family, so when she turned 35, she submitted a DNA sample to genealogy site 23andMe.
In 2014, the site linked her to seven half-siblings in the company’s database.
She recalled feeling “immediate excitement, with concern,” Ballard says in the documentary. Because while she may have had brothers and sisters, just as she’d always wanted, the revelation also indicated that Cline had seemingly lied to her mother when he told her he never used one donor more than three times.
Meanwhile, not everyone she turned out to be related to had been on 23andMe knowing they were products of artificial insemination. For four of them, Ballard told Hazlitt in 2017, “It was horrible for their families.” Ultimately they got the truth from their parents but, Ballard said, “This is what people don’t understand. They think, ‘I want a baby.’ But they don’t think that baby will grow up.”
The newly united half-siblings decided to investigate their family tree, a journey that, as shown in “Our Father,” ultimately led them to a second cousin named Sylvia Pauckner, who provided a list of other relatives–including one with the last name Swinford. Which was Cline’s mother’s maiden name.
Oh yes, Ballard recalled Pauckner informing them, she did have a cousin named Cline. Don Cline, a doctor.
Not exactly knowing where to turn, Ballard and three others filed a complaint with the Indiana Attorney General’s office, which, Ballard said, resulted in the receipt of a form letter saying the complaint had been received and would be looked into.
She also contacted local and national news outlets, but didn’t have any takers until one night she saw Angela Ganote on Indianapolis’ Fox59 News. “Her,” Ballard remembering thinking.
Ganote proved to be the right choice, because she immediately started to investigate the group’s concerns about Cline. A Fox59 report from May 2015 doesn’t name the doctor or any of the siblings, but details how DNA test results confirmed that an Indianapolis woman was one of at least eight half-siblings who had found each other using 23andMe, and that their mothers had all visited the same clinic.
Three of them told Fox59 that they had spoken to the doctor in question and he had told them that each donor was a med student and only allowed to donate for a total of three healthy pregnancies. The doctor had been unwilling to provide medical histories or any other information about the donors’ identifies, the siblings said.
Fox59 reported that, after the news outlet reached out to then-State Sen. Jim Merritt, someone from the state attorney general’s office finally contacted the siblings. Merritt, who retired in 2020, told Fox59 at the time that investigators were proceeding carefully because “there are a lot of issues at stake here. We don’t know how many lives are at stake here and that’s one of the problems.”
At the time, no one could have guessed just how many lives were involved.
Cline, who retired in 2009, denied the accusations, declaring in a written statement to investigators, “I can emphatically say that at no time did I ever use my own sample for insemination.” Moreover, he also wrote, “if this woman is saying this or writing this I believe she is [guilty] of slander and/or libel.”
As Ganote recalls in “Our Father,” when she first contacted him in 2015, Cline denied being the father of any of his patients’ children, and said he only used sperm from doctors- and dentists-in-training and there was no way any of his donors were used more than three times. He also refused to take a DNA test, the journalist said.
But in a meeting with one of the siblings in early 2016, according to allegations detailed in an affidavit filed in Marion Superior Court that September and obtained by NBC News, Cline admitted to using his own sperm to inseminate patients–but on no more than eight occasions. (None of the siblings were named in the court filing, but Ballard and others have since gone public.)
The filing further alleged that, when confronted by six of the siblings at a meeting in March 2016 (facilitated by Cline’s son, the only one who responded to their Facebook entreaties, Ballard told Hazlitt), Cline admitted to using his own sperm around 50 times.
“He was distant and cold,” Ballard told Hazlitt about the meeting. “He used a lot of Bible verses.”
All of those inseminations happened in the 1970s and ’80s, Cline also allegedly told them, so all of the records had long since been destroyed. (State law only required medical records to be preserved for seven years.) He said he “felt he was helping woman because they really wanted a baby,” the affidavit stated, and “felt pressured to use his own sperm because he didn’t always have fresh sperm.” But if he’d known genetic testing would reveal all one day, “he would not have done it,” Cline allegedly said.
The act of using his own sperm to inseminate his patients was not illegal, there being no state law dictating otherwise. But Cline was accused of lying to investigators and charged with two felony counts of obstruction of justice in September 2016. He pleaded not guilty.
Based on his alleged admissions to Ballard and the others, prosecutors were able to command a DNA sample from Cline, and it showed he was a 99.9997 percent and 99.998 percent paternal match, respectively, to two of the three siblings tested, according to the criminal complaint. (It did not mention what the results were with regard to the third sibling, or why his DNA wasn’t ran against all eight.)
“The overriding issue is truthfulness,” Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Tim DeLaney told reporters after Cline entered his plea. “From our perspective, the moment it got elevated to an investigation by the AG’s office, it was his obligation to tell the truth and he lied.”
A woman who said Cline was her biological father, but who didn’t want to be named, told Fox59, “It was unethical what he did. He was telling his patients one thing and doing another.” And, she added, “It is very sickening to think he ran his practice up until the time he was about 70.”
Cline’s attorney said in a statement to NBC News at the time that the charges were arose “solely from his written response to inquiries from the Indiana Attorney General’s office and nothing more. He is not accused of hiding documents, influencing witnesses or otherwise not cooperating with the AG’s investigation.”
Facing a maximum six years in prison, Cline ultimately pleaded guilty on both counts in 2017 and was given a suspended 365-day jail sentence, meaning he spent no time behind bars, nor was he given probation. He was ultimately fined $500.
“Out of fear I acted alone and, foolishly, I lied,” he told the court in a statement, maintaining he had no idea who his accusers could be when investigators first contacted him.
“Not only did Dr. Cline abuse his position of complete trust with his patients, his decisions will have lasting impact through generations of the impacted families,” Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry told reporters after the sentencing. “There were significant limitations to how a criminal case could proceed against Dr. Cline, but ultimately he admitted to his actions and to intentionally misleading investigators.”
Ballard, disappointed, told Indianapolis’ CBS 4 that she didn’t think Cline had shown any real remorse for his actions.
“When we met [in 2016]…he sat there and said that he was,” she said. “He still at that time could not admit to us how many times he had done it or anything else. When he read his letter today, and said he had apologized and was remorseful- no.”
Matt White, one of her half-siblings by Cline, agreed. “There’s dozens of us,” the then-35-year-old told reporters. “There’s all of our mothers. He violated women’s reproductive rights for close to a decade… There’s no remorse, he knew what he was doing.” Matt didn’t find out that he was part of this sprawling family until 2016, when he learned of the investigation and got tested.
Matt participated in “Our Father,” as did his mother Liz White, who became an advocate for legislation to prevent anything like what happened to her family from happening to anybody else in the future. While there were no such protections in place when she went to Cline, it is now illegal in Indiana for doctors to secretly donate their own sperm for insemination.
When the legislation was signed into law in 2019, Matt told CBC Radio’s As It Happens, “I feel a great sense of gratitude. It was a relief to realize that, you know, the state of Indiana through the legislature agreed with this wholeheartedly, with a unanimous vote.”
A health care facility is “one place we should all feel safe,” Liz White said on the show. “And when I realized that we weren’t safe, he had lied to us, and had planned it again and again with other mothers, so it was terribly awful to hear all the stories.”
Also in “Our Father” is Dianna Kiesler, who recalls how she thought she was being impregnated with her own husband’s sperm, which she brought with her to the clinic in a little container.
She told CBS 4 after Cline was sentenced, “There are many of us out here that he ruined our lives. My daughter thought she was my husband’s. He ruined all that. I had to go home and tell my husband that he’s not the father of my child.”
Heather Woock, one of the aforementioned siblings who did not know when her 23andMe journey began that her mother had been artificially inseminated, told Fox59’s Angela Ganote earlier this month that her world really was turned upside down when DNA showed that Cline was her biological father.
“That has been the most challenging thing for me personally,” Woock, who went public for the Netflix documentary, said. “It’s put me on a path of making sure everyone knew this is something that can and has happened many times. Hopefully, we can prevent it for the future.”
“Our Father” director Lucie Jourdan explained that she simply wanted to give Ballard and her siblings a broad space to tell their story. “I don’t want to call them victims,” she said. “They’re siblings. They’re incredible humans. There is not a victim among them. They are strong and powerful.”
Since 2014, DNA testing has shown that former only child Jacoba Ballard is one of almost 100 half-siblings.
“Our Father” is streaming on Netflix.