Our Father Review: A Shocking, Stomach-Churning Documentary

Warning: The following article includes allegations of sexual assault and rape.

Netflix's documentary "Our Father" is a bit of a misnomer; its subject is actually not the disgraced fertility doctor Donald Cline, but his biological daughter Jacoba Ballard — and despite the film appearing to be one of the streamer's true-crime offerings, audiences will be disgusted to learn that technically, the doctor putting his own semen into non-consenting female patients was not actually illegal at the time the events took place. 

Releasing at a time when women's legal reproductive rights in the United States already feel tenuous at best, "Our Father" lands with a stomach-churning thud. It offers the horrific story of multiple women who were patients of the then-renowned fertility expert Dr. Donald Cline. Cline offered artificial insemination services in Indianapolis whereby he took a "fresh" sample — either from a husband or a medical student donor — and injected it into the patient's vagina near the cervix. He had remarkably high success rates; as his former nurse Jan Shore puts it, he was doing things to correct fertility issues that no one else was doing. Unfortunately, this turned out to be true in more ways than one. 

Cline was using his own semen to impregnate his patients throughout the '80s — walking into his office, arousing himself to sexual climax, then injecting his own genetic material into the female patient waiting in the room next door, her bottom bare, her feet in stirrups, and her sexual organs exposed. He did so in a medical office decorated with Christian art and paraphernalia — he was a devout man of faith. As discussed in a 2019 article by The Atlantic, he stopped at the end of the decade, but only because clinics had stopped using fresh semen and sperm banks became more prevalent. 

"Our Father" is less concerned, however, about detailing the timeline and the specifics of his transgressions. The movie does not retell sordid details for cheap thrills, nor does it glamorize the doctor as an infamous figure. Instead, "Our Father" makes the wise decision to focus more on the impact on his victims, as well as the frustratingly deficient legal systems that provided such little oversight for the doctor's activities — let alone protection for vulnerable patients.

It only gets worse

Jacoba Ballard was born as a result of artificial insemination. As a child, she yearned for a sibling, which began her journey of self-discovery — one that would eventually lead her to dark recesses of human evil masquerading as Christian good. Early on, Ballard had contacted Cline regarding possible siblings. He told her that he had destroyed all of the records (which seems irresponsible, considering the importance of knowing family history for medical purposes). He also stated that no donor would have fathered more than three children maximum — an important precaution to limit the likelihood of unknowing half-siblings becoming romantically involved. 

Of course, Cline was not too careful, and when Ballard resorted to 23andMe to find possible biological family members, she was surprised to find seven siblings in a close area. She reached out to her matches, and together, they began researching to try and identify who their father was — originally assuming it was a medical student, based on what Cline had told their mothers. As time went on, however, the number of siblings grew and grew — and Ballard's surprise turned to disgust, and then horror. "Our Father" sets up the background, but mainly chronicles Ballard's efforts to first verify that Cline was her biological father, and then hold him accountable for his lies and breach of trust. It recreates the nauseating rolling count of discovered siblings (to this day, more keep being discovered), and takes the time to let the men and women Cline fathered offer impact statements. I won't spoil it for you, but the sheer number of half-siblings discovered by the time the movie ends is shocking.  

A mostly strong film, "Our Father" suffers from the heightened drama that's become so common for these documentaries: there are stylized reenactments of events, a score throughout to manufacture pathos and emotional stakes, and carefully edited interview segments to maximize the impact of statements.  Still, for how borderline cheesy the movie is on occasion, director Lucie Jourdan does an excellent job of emphasizing the heinous nature of the doctor's actions, while humanizing the patients and making the children's plight sympathetic. Sure, one could argue that the women were looking to get pregnant and Dr. Cline helped them accomplish that — but his ends do not justify the means, and "Our Father" is careful to shut down that line of reasoning early on. One mother states that she was "raped 15 times" by that man — and thanks to the thoughtful approach of the documentary, as a viewer, you believe her.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

"Our Father" premieres May 11, 2022 on Netflix.