Jacoba Ballard has 94 siblings and according to the Netflix documentary Our father the number continues to rise. Ballard and her mother are victims of one of the most disturbing medical malpractice cases in American history. This is the now famous case of Donald Cline, a fertility specialist who used his own sperm to inseminate his patients. The twisted story is a journey through not only the abuse of a medical practice and the limits of consent. It’s also a troubling look at the legal whitewashes that allow Cline and other cases like hers to continue to thrive.
Our father focuses its attention on the long journey of victims in search of justice, recognition and validation. Also the way in which Cline’s performance not only perverted a medical procedure into a concrete crime. Director Lucie Jourdan uses the notion of the slippery slope of assisted reproduction procedures to tell a horror story. Slowly, the notion about how Cline manipulatedhe attacked and in the end he converted insemination is a weapon of power, it confuses and terrifies. But much more, the fact that his performance turned his patients into effective victims of an inexplicable circumstance.
Cline, currently free, faces no immediate civil or criminal charges. And meanwhile, the count of her biological children increases. The specialist who initially denied the charges and later pleaded in court for “mercy” that she is still defended and protected. Meanwhile, her “children of hers” suffers the consequences of an unexpected and cruel type of aggression that destroyed her identity and her lives, as they knew her. Our father narrates the details of the history of each one of themor at least, those who have wanted to participate in the production. Secrecy, fear and shame hide most of the horrors committed by Cline throughout her career. Something that Our father shows with a brilliant script and especially, attention to the perception of the collective tragedy that caused the case and its countless consequences.
Our fatherhorror behind closed doors
In the 1970s, fertility specialist Donald Cline was one of the most recognized names in a pioneering medical field. Hundreds of families in Indiana, USA, came to his office for help with a wide range of reproductive problems. Over the years and thanks to the success of most of his procedures, Cline became a respected and loved man.
Most of his patients appreciated the doctor’s intervention in the possibility of fathering. And even his apparently caring intervention in their lives years later. The expert became a recognized man and one with the backing of hundreds of successes in his long resume. Until Jacoba Ballard, one of the babies born thanks to the Cline’s assisted fertilization procedures, became an adult and began to trace her genetic origin.
Our father shows Ballard’s struggle to piece together the murky puzzle of his biological history. Through an informal investigation, the victim was able to prove her circumstantial relationship to at least seven children of Cline’s patients. She did it without the help of the law or any legal institution, which for years ignored her claims.
A sinister experiment of disturbing proportions
Gradually, Ballard managed to find the thread in the middle of a confusing case and demonstrate its reach. Much more worrying, the fact that the decision of reproductive care in North America, still has to go through uncertain legal places. With a steady hand, the documentary allows Ballard to tell the story on his terms. As if that weren’t enough, he explored the infinite edges of a hitherto unthinkable situation.
Each of the Cline children discovered that their family history had been sullied by a questionable and brutal decision by the medical expert. Our father narrates the case from the cloudy astonishmentbut especially from the awareness of the cruelty of Cline’s behavior. The enigma of her kinship became a large crime not recognized by the American legal system. At once, in a domestic tragedy that destroyed lives and turned the Cline children into unlikely guinea pigs.
“I know that every time I tell one of my brothers what happened, I will destroy their life,” says Ballard. He explains it as he details every time he had to write and inform a stranger about what happened in Cline’s office. His face, pale and serious, is the meeting point between all the stories that surround him. As if it were a sinister game of mirrors, the film explores the possibility that Cline used her sperm for religious and even racial reasons. And again, emphasizes the resemblance of the brothers. All blondes and blue eyes, with autoimmune problems. All genetic traits inherited from Cline.
An end without answers
Perhaps one of the most overwhelming points of Our father is to demonstrate that the laws do not cover the eventuality of the Cline brothers. First ignored by the Indiana legal system, Ballard had to fight for recognition from the prosecution. Once he achieved it, the complicated path to achieve something resembling justice has been laborious and thankless. The documentary tells step by step, the need for recognition of the so-called Cline children. But more importantly, of an extremely serious medical circumstance that the law does not fully contemplate, punish or understand.
To its bleak end, Our father just make it clear that Jacoba Ballart will continue to fight for justice. Not that you will get it. Meanwhile, the number of children linked by a fraudulent practice is increasing rapidly. “Ninety-four brothers” can be read on the screen. “And counting,” she adds later, to make it clear that the tragedy of the Cline children continues. It becomes more frightening and painful.