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When the fertility industry goes rogue

And a new Netflix documentary chronicles only one example

Jacoba Ballard in a scene from Our Father Netflix

When the fertility industry goes rogue

The emergence of DNA genetic testing kits like 23andMe wasn’t something fertility specialist Dr. Donald Cline had anticipated existing in his lifetime. For him, the easy-to-purchase kits uncovered a dark and demented secret he’d kept for decades. Cline had inseminated his female patients with his own sperm, resulting in at least 50 children, most of whom reside in the Indianapolis area where he practiced.

Netflix released Our Father, a film documenting the scandal, today. Viewers may be surprised to discover that authorities have never charged Cline with a crime and he has never served a day in jail. The situation showcases a wildly unregulated fertility industry that allows rogue doctors to go unpunished while people pay the price for the careless creation and destruction of human life.

When Jacoba Ballard, who was an only child and was conceived under Cline’s care, took a DNA test, she found multiple half-siblings. This discovery unraveled Cline’s carefully concealed actions and led to a chilling revelation for families. Some found out, for the first time, that their fathers or children were not biologically related.

And yet, as a representative from the attorney general’s office says in the film’s trailer, “Legally, there is just no crime.” Cline ultimately admitted to his actions, but he was only charged with “obstruction of justice” for initially lying to investigators. It makes you wonder what else we don’t know about these clinics, which are lucrative businesses that can cost desperate couples upward of $30,000. What else isn’t a crime?

With more than 450 fertility clinics across the country accounting for more than 8 million births (as of 2018), little oversight exists. The dangers or potential outcomes of fertility treatment—like the risk of multiples or the creation of excess embryos—are often not conveyed clearly to patients. Thousands upon thousands of human embryos are destroyed or discarded—or just frozen indefinitely. The rare but horrifying occurrences like those portrayed in Our Father are also possibilities. Other heart-wrenching scenarios in the world of fertility and surrogacy are nearly as disturbing.

Human life has become a commodity, a domestic good to create and destroy at will—if you just have the cash on hand.

One surrogate mother in the United States birthed twins for a couple residing overseas during the pandemic. When the couple couldn’t pick them up due to travel restrictions, the surrogate mother began to raise them. When restrictions lifted, the couple disappeared and never came to retrieve their babies. In another recent situation, two women were implanted with the wrong embryos and birthed one another’s babies. It took months to discover the mix-up, and both families were forced to undergo the trauma of switching their babies back to their biological parents. Regardless of whether the babies remember their early days, a bonding like that of an adoption had occurred and will affect them.

There are endless stories like these that reside in the world of superficial baby-making, from the hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos languishing in storage banks to surrogates fighting against biological parents on abortion. Human life has become a commodity, a domestic good to create and destroy at will—if you just have the cash on hand. Technology is incredible, but disembodied conception displays all the signs of innovation gone wrong.

To the Christian, bodies are sacred temples of the Holy Spirit, intentionally formed and contoured by the hand of God. Babies conceived through in vitro fertilization or other means are certainly still His children and made in His image, but it’s worth questioning methods that can lead to conception outside the context of the one-flesh union.

As someone who underwent IVF without knowing much of what I know now, I can attest to the lack of information doctors convey in clinic screening rooms. Exactly zero moral, ethical, or logistical concerns were raised because, after all, a business doesn’t set out to lose clients. My husband and I followed our instructions and trusted the doctors to mix and match our parts in a laboratory, where our babies were conceived miles away from our bodies. I love my children madly, but the moral context of their physical beginnings causes my heart to ache.

Cline’s example of reproductive misbehavior is particularly grievous and gross, but the fertility industry needs a serious overhaul, implementation of sensible regulations, and laws that would punish doctors like him for such an awful offense. Christians ought to think long and hard about the kind of fertility treatment they pursue and consider if it dignifies the human life created. Lord-willing, the story of Dr. Cline will cause families—and all Christians—to think more deeply about the choices we make regarding family formation in a time of infertility.

Ericka Andersen

Ericka Andersen is a freelance writer and mother of two living in Indianapolis. She is the author of Leaving Cloud 9 and Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women. Ericka hosts the Worth Your Time podcast. She has been published in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Christianity Today, USA Today, and more.

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