To couples at the end of their ropes who wanted children but could not conceive them for medical reasons, Dr. Donald Cline was a savior of sorts, offering to match the women with sperm from anonymous men resembling their partners.
Many couples sought Cline out at his Indianapolis-area fertility clinic during the 1970s and ’80s. They had children, who grew up and had children of their own.
What the couples did not know was that on an untold number of occasions, Cline was not using the sperm of anonymous donors.
He was using his own.
Now, Cline’s former patients and their children are asking enormously consequential questions: How many women did he deceive? How many children did he father? Most perplexingly, why did he do it?
The authorities who are investigating Cline have confirmed through DNA testing that two women were biological children of his. Through 23andMe and other similar genetic testing websites, three dozen half siblings of those women have been found, said Jacoba Ballard, 38, one of the biological daughters. She expects the number to grow.
In some instances, state prosecutors said, Cline even told women that he was using their husbands’ sperm but provided his own.
“It’s definitely emotional on a lot of different levels, seeing how upset it makes my mom, some of the things that go around in my head, like, ‘Am I the way I am in some respect because he is who he is?’ It plays mind games with you,” said Matt White, one of the half siblings. “There’s times I get really angry. I’m confused. Like, why?”
Cline did not return a phone call requesting comment. Peter Pogue, his lawyer, said Cline would “continue to defend himself in the appropriate forums” but declined to answer further questions.
In December, Cline pleaded guilty to two felony obstruction of justice charges, acknowledging that he lied to state investigators when denying the accusations that he used his own sperm. He said he had given his own sperm to several patients, according to court papers. The exact number is not known.
He was given a 365-day jail sentence that was suspended.
Through a lawyer, Cline surrendered his medical license to the state last week, and a state medical board barred him from ever getting a license again. Cline had retired in 2009 and his license had expired in 2017, according to prosecutors.
The investigation into Cline began in 2014 and 2015, when a group of women including Ballard filed a complaint against Cline with Indiana’s attorney general, whose office investigates consumer complaints against physicians.
They said in the complaint that, in researching their origins, they had discovered through a genetic testing website that they were half siblings, and had all been conceived using sperm from Cline’s office.
Cline had previously told them that he used sperm from anonymous hospital residents, and that he used the same donor for only up to three pregnancies, the complaint said. The doctor also told them that all his records were shredded and that he did not recall any additional details, according to the complaint.
Through 23andMe, the women discovered that there were eight half siblings, contradicting Cline’s assertion that the sperm was used for only three pregnancies. Further investigation on genetic testing websites showed DNA links to Cline’s relatives, according to the complaint.
Cline initially denied using his own sperm for insemination, prosecutors said, misleading the attorney general’s office. Cline later acknowledged that he did use his sperm.
The case against Cline, and the quest for answers, have been complicated by Indiana state law. Ballard said she also reported the half siblings’ findings to local law enforcement, and while the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office in Indianapolis ended up charging Cline for misleading investigators, Ballard was told there is no law in Indiana that would criminalize Cline using his own sperm to inseminate patients.
In Virginia in 1992, an infertility specialist was convicted on 52 counts of fraud and perjury for artificially inseminating patients with his own sperm, among other charges.
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, in written responses to questions, said simply that “Indiana law has different provisions” than in the Virginia case. The office did not answer questions as to whether Cline had been investigated for fraud, but said that Cline was not being criminally investigated anymore.
Ballard said the lack of more serious charges was “disheartening.”
Ballard and White are now pressuring state lawmakers to pass a law that would explicitly make it a crime for doctors to use their own sperm in such cases.
“I want laws changed, I want medical professionals to be held accountable,” Ballard said. “As far as peace of mind? I’ll never have that.”
White and Ballard now both continually check websites like 23andMe to see if any new half siblings will emerge. Some want to be contacted, others do not. Ballard said she was trying to contact them to explain the story.
“You just relive this nightmare, every single time,” she said.