Photo via AP Photo
At the beginning of 2019, a weekend after New Year’s, a small group of lookalikes and their children made what has recently become an annual trek to a rented cabin in Indianapolis for finger foods, a winter hike, and a white-elephant gift exchange. Strangers until a few years ago, the adults shared silly gifts and something else: noses and chins and hairlines and builds. Many even had gravitated toward the same profession: medicine.
Those traits aren’t surprising given that their father was a well-known fertility specialist. The shock is that Donald Cline is their father at all.
That number continues to grow as new victims come forward. According to state and federal law, fertility fraud is not a crime, though there’s a movement in at least three states—including Indiana—to change the criminal code. In 2017, Cline was convicted on two felony counts for obstructing the state attorney general’s investigation into the matter. A judge suspended the former doctor’s sentence, though Cline did pay a $500 fine and court costs, which totaled $185.
Meanwhile, Cline’s newfound biological offspring and former patients have told state legislators they’ve paid a much dearer price.
“For me as a person, I was raped 15 times and didn’t even know it,” Liz White, who went to Cline desperate to have a child in 1981, told state lawmakers in January. After the gathering at the cabin, a group of these half-siblings and their parents joined White at the Statehouse to lobby for a bill in the Indiana General Assembly that would make it possible to pursue a civil suit up to five years after discovery of the crime. It also requires the legislature to study fertility laws. “He was an old man to me,” said White. “I did not want his semen. I don’t care how it came into my body. It was against my knowledge. It was against my consent.” She held up a yellowing photo of her holding her son, newborn Matthew, a name she selected for him because it meant “gift from God.”
Matthew, now 36, recalls taking in a moment at the last sibling gathering and being struck by the human instinct to bond—even in the strangest of circumstances. “We find a lot of comfort in each other,” he told me. “I know I do. We’re the only ones that can truly understand what kind of crazy things are going on in our head. There’s no one else who can experience it.”
Nor does there appear to be anyone to answer for it.
Donald Cline opened his front door, scowling. At age 80, he looked haggard, with an unshaven face and hearing aids in his ears. He appeared wan and more gaunt than in photos taken in 2017, when he filed into Courtroom 15 in the City-County Building for his sentencing. He sported a Colts hat, wearing a vest over a plaid shirt.
It was a warm day this past spring, and we were standing on his porch in Zionsville. After introducing myself, I told him I wanted to understand why he did what he did.
“You’re only about the 100th person,” he replied.
Cline at first declined to talk about the case, and told me I should call his lawyer, Peter Pogue, a medical malpractice attorney at Schultz & Pogue, a civil-litigation firm.
“There are still things going on,” Cline said, declining to elaborate, and, at press time, Pogue had not returned emails or phone calls regarding this story.
“It’s old news,” Audrey, Cline’s wife of 60 years, added, as she stood behind him in the foyer.
According to court documents, Cline’s friends and family believe the charges seem out of character for a man they regarded as a patriarch, pillar of the medical community, and devoted leader in his Zionsville Fellowship Church.
Cline earned his undergraduate degree from Indiana University and his M.D. from IU’s medical school. He interned at Methodist Hospital. He served two years in the United States Air Force and another 12 years in inactive reserve, and received an honorable discharge. Cline opened his 2020 West 86th Street clinic in 1979. With its drab concrete exterior and concrete spires that rose on its facade like prison bars, the three-story, 1970s-era medical office building didn’t look much like a beacon of hope. But its limited curb appeal belied what the address had come to represent for a generation of Indianapolis-area women in the 1970s and 80s, which was exactly that: a place they sought out as their last, best hope to conceive children. His oldest daughter, Donna Stein, worked for him as a registered nurse.
He was a “doctor’s doctor,” according to Dr. William E. Chapman, who has been a close friend of Cline’s since they met 59 years ago as students at Indiana University. The two even bought adjacent parcels of land in Zionsville to become neighbors. Chapman wrote all this to Marion Superior Court Judge Helen Marchal in November 2017, asking for leniency for his friend. Cline was one of the first doctors in Indiana to perform laparoscopic surgery, a minimally invasive technique that uses a tiny camera called a laparoscope. He was once a keynote speaker at the International Symposium for Infertility in Bologna, Italy. Indianapolis Monthly named him a top doctor multiple times. “He was the doctor other physicians chose for their own families with infertility or OB-GYN needs,” Chapman wrote the judge, noting that his wife, Susie, received gynecological care from Cline.
He was a man of faith, too. He and Audrey taught a course in his home for several hundred parents called “Growing Kids God’s Way.” They had two children, Donna and Doug.
When Cline retired after 38 years in 2009, his retirement party had a receiving line “a city block in length for a period of three hours,” according to his son-in-law and former office manager Joe Stein in a letter he wrote to the judge. “He would take calls from crying and frustrated patients at all times of the day and night. As you know, infertility is a very sensitive thing for a family to go through. He was amazing.”
So the 11 letters to the court in Cline’s support continued. John B. “Jay” Parks, the husband of one of Cline’s satisfied OB-GYN patients from the 1980s, noted: “What Dr. Cline did to mitigate this problem of [not having enough viable sperm donors] is not illegal. At least he has corrected the error publicly.” James. R. Nicholson, a fellow church member, wrote that Cline “has confessed openly to his errors and has repented of them.”
Even the then-Boone County prosecutor, Todd J. Meyer, wrote the judge asking for leniency. For five years, Meyer and his wife had struggled to become pregnant.
They had discussed adoption. But Cline helped them, presumably using a donor’s sperm, and the Meyers have three boys now. “I am convinced,” wrote Meyer, “that but for Dr. Cline, my wife and I would not have the family we have today.” Meyer requested that the judge give Cline alternate misdemeanor sentencing. “I believe he is the type of offender that alternate misdemeanor sentencing was designed for and by him demonstrating his remorsefulness and taking accountability for his actions through his plea of guilty, I personally believe such a sentence accomplishes justice.”
But when Cline talked with me on his porch in the spring, he didn’t seem remorseful. “It’s been a real hard problem for me,” he said of his mounting legal woes.
“It’s just that one woman who’s upset that she has a life,” his wife Audrey added.
It isn’t clear which of Cline’s many biological daughters Audrey was referring to, but those who know the case believe it must have been Jacoba Ballard, one of the most outspoken Cline children in the case. In 2014, Ballard logged on to 23andMe, the genomics and biotech website that offers users a peek at their ancestry. The 34-year-old long knew she hadn’t been conceived by her father, a fact she learned when she was 10. She was at a point in her life when she wanted to know more about her biological father. She didn’t expect she’d be able to find him. At the least, she thought, she could build relationships with her half-siblings—if there were any. When her results showed up, she was stunned to learn that she had seven of them.
Ballard was flummoxed. Her mother was 20 years old when she first went to see her fertility doctor in the fall of 1979. The doctor had reassured her mother that he used fresh sperm from medical residents, and that a donor would only be used three times to create life. Her child, he told her, would resemble her father. Ballard was born August 26, 1980.
She shared the discovery of her seven half-siblings with her mom. What was the name of the fertility doctor? Donald Cline, her mother reminded her. Ballard began to reach out to her half-siblings, whose birthdays stretched across seven years. Surprisingly, they, too, were all in the medical fields. The half-siblings had something else in common, too: Their birth mothers had all gone to Cline.
Ballard filed a report with the Indiana attorney general’s office. Ballard and one of her newfound half-siblings, Kristy Killion, were interviewed by the office, as well as a Marion County grand jury. Killion had also taken a genetic test in 2014, learning she had five half-siblings. She double-checked her results on Ancestry.com. Killion and Ballard had met when they had both signed up for amfor.net, a registry for donor offspring, parents, and siblings. Each had uploaded her name, age, and facility her parents used to conceive. Then Killion and her sister took a DNA test and convinced Ballard to as well, revealing their relationship.
“I think as humans, we have the need and want to know where we have come from, where we fit in, where we belong.”
One of the half-siblings who lived in Arizona wrote Cline, seeking answers. Cline wrote her back, explaining that he did not keep a record of the donors’ identities. “We used fresh samples collected approximately one hour prior to the insemination,” Cline lied. “I matched the blood type of the donor to that of my patient’s husband and also his general physical characteristics. I almost always used resident physicians and most were married with children of their own. Also, their family history was entirely negative for any familial illnesses. This many years later, I could not possibly remember anything else.”
Based on separate complaints from Ballard and Killion, the Indiana attorney general’s office sent Cline two letters in January 2015 that indicated he was under investigation. Cline, who had been retired for five years, had 20 days to respond to the letter.
In his response, Cline claimed not to remember either person, and cited an Indiana statute that held that doctors only had to keep records on patients for seven years after their last treatment. Those records had long been destroyed. Cline said that he had performed artificial inseminations from 1971 to 1981 using fresh sperm. He reaffirmed what he had told all of his patients: that he did not use the same donor for more than three pregnancies. He said that sometime in the 1980s he stopped using fresh semen, and started using frozen samples from Follas Laboratories in Indianapolis, a new standard of care that started around the same time by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. “I never knew the name of the frozen donors,” he told the AG. “I can emphatically say that at no time did I ever use my own sample for insemination nor was I a donor at Follas Laboratories.” Cline accused both women of slander and libel. In the meantime, the AG’s office continued its investigation, sending a subpoena to Follas Laboratories. No records there showed them working with Cline.
Later, in May 2015, one of the half-siblings who identified herself only as “Carrie” took her story to the media. Fox 59’s Angela Ganote interviewed Carrie and two others. The reporter referred the case to the Marion County prosecutor’s office. “I went from being an only child to having at least eight siblings overnight,” Carrie told Ganote. “I think as humans, we have the need and want to know where we have come from, where we fit in, where we belong.”
As the AG’s inquiry unfolded, Ballard and Killion mounted their own investigation. Using 23andMe, they built their own family tree. The sisters discovered they were genetically related to more than 70 of Cline’s relatives. Their closest match was a first cousin of Cline. Their suspicion started to narrow to two possibilities: Either Cline must have used a sample from one of his family members, or he had used his own. Both ideas sickened the donor children.
Eventually, Ballard and Killion arranged a meeting with two of Cline’s adult children, Doug and Donna, at a church in Brazil, Indiana. The Cline children took notes as Ballard and Killion shared their findings. Doug and Donna relayed what they had coaxed out of their father: He claimed to have donated his own samples to a sperm bank, but not on more than eight occasions. He claimed to have done so to Follas Laboratories, despite the attorney general finding no evidence of it.
Ballard and Killion knew his statement wasn’t true, based on what they were hearing from an investigator with the AG’s office. Doug confronted his father with the facts, and Cline changed his story. He had other children out there, Cline told his son.
Not long after the meeting, Ballard spoke with Doug by phone. According to an affidavit, Doug asked her to keep the story a secret. That didn’t sit well with Ballard, who demanded a meeting with Cline.
In spring 2016, Ballard, Killion, and four others met their biological father for the first time at a restaurant in Greencastle. There, Cline confessed to using his own sample as many as 50 times, court documents say. He was helping women who really wanted a baby, and his wife supported his efforts. In fact, he had never used a sperm bank. Cline also said he wasn’t sure when he stopped using his own sperm, though the youngest known Cline offspring was born in 1986.
At last count, DNA test results have linked Dr. Cline to 57 children of former patients.
Shortly before the legislative hearing on the proposed fertility fraud bill, Matthew White spent nights after work at his home in Carmel typing letters to state lawmakers. But as he drafted the notes, White ran into a strange problem: News of the number of his half-siblings seemed to increase by the hour. “I couldn’t type a letter at night and then print it out in the morning and send it without it changing,” he says. “Finally, I had to write on the envelope saying, ‘Oh, the number in here has been updated since I wrote it last night.’”
Matthew had long known that his dad wasn’t his biological father. At 14, he came home one day from biology class after a lesson about blood types with some questions for his mother and father. As a social worker, his mother, Liz, had done a substantial amount of research over whether to tell Matthew the truth. The literature on the topic was divided, but she didn’t think keeping secrets was a healthy practice. So she and her husband explained to Matthew that he was a donor baby—a miracle brought to them by medicine and Cline.
At that point, passing the doctor’s office on 86th Street was still a happy occasion. “That’s where I got pregnant with you,” Liz would tell Matthew.
But over the last several years, joy has been replaced by something else. Matthew reeled for days when the news about Cline first began to break and he pieced together the unsettling circumstances of his conception. It’s a feeling shared by many of his newfound half-siblings.
At Cline’s obstruction hearing, Ballard said the former doctor was an embarrassment to the medical profession. “It was always about you,” she said. “You lied. You still lie. You even have your family believing you, and that sickens me.” Ballard went on to testify that she took medication for anxiety that resulted from the discovery that Cline was her biological father. “I isolate myself from family and friends. In addition to questioning and doubting others, I also question … the purpose of my life.” Killion offered similar testimony. “I lost all sense of identity and rationality,” she told the court. “Things were no longer black and white. Instead there were so many unknowns and questions and the fact that I will never have clear-cut answers has really taken its toll on me. I no longer trust. I push every person close to me away, including my husband, friends, and even siblings at times.”
“Your Honor, I am asking for mercy and compassion for myself. I have learned from scripture that the way of the fool is right in his own eyes.”
Cline eventually told the court: “Unfortunately, out of fear, I acted alone and foolishly I lied.” He said after realizing his transgressions in 2015, he met with his family and confessed to them. “Your Honor, I am asking for mercy and compassion for myself. I have learned from scripture that the way of the fool is right in his own eyes.” But Cline offered no explanation for why he used his own sperm for all of those years and kept it secret.
Liz White and her son Matthew think Cline was living out a twisted sexual fantasy. “That’s just a pattern,” Liz told me. “And that pattern is very similar to other people who have taken advantage of someone else as a kind of power shift position.”
Matthew has dealt with wondering whether he was the product of rape. But over time, the backstory of his conception has made him a better parent, he says. In his 20s, White learned that like his father, he couldn’t have children naturally. Now with two children of his own, White understands the financial and emotional struggles his parents endured to have him, but still can’t comprehend Cline’s motivations. “It was just all planned, calculated, and executed flawlessly until technology caught up to him,” White says. “Why he did it, I don’t know, but I think it’s disgusting. He had to go in, prepare the patient, step out of the room, do his business, put that in a syringe, and step right back in. That is not a medical procedure. That is definitely sexual in nature.”
At press time, the Indiana Senate had passed a bill supported by the Whites that would make Cline’s actions a felony. The House was expected to vote on the measure in April, paving the way for one of the nation’s first fertility fraud laws.
Matthew has recently learned of a few more half-siblings—pushing the number to 57. And while Cline’s children have found some strength in numbers, many continue to wrestle with their unique and bizarre situation. As Matthew says, “There’s no idiot’s guide to finding out that your biological father is your mother’s fertility doctor.”