By Jessica Birdsong
A lot of us have seen the Netflix documentary, Our Father, presenting a disturbing tale of a physician, Dr. Donald Cline, who, during the 1970s and 80s, performed inseminations on patients using his own sperm, without their knowledge or consent. The extent of his actions is unknown, but he fathered at least 94 biological children, and possibly many more. The discovery of this deception has been devastating for the victims, as they grapple with the loss of their identity and the revelation of having numerous half-siblings. The mothers who were affected have also been left feeling violated and betrayed.
Legal action was taken by some of the affected siblings, but they were met with disappointment. Despite Cline’s egregious actions, he was not charged with rape, battery with bodily waste, or even with criminal deception. Instead, he was only charged with obstruction of justice for being untruthful, resulting in a $500 fine and no jail time. This lack of legal consequences stems from the fact that no law in Indiana or most other states specifically prohibits a doctor from using their own sperm in their patients.
Regrettably, Cline’s story is not unique. In a 2023 decision, a judge dismissed claims made by offspring who discovered that a Connecticut doctor had used his own sperm to impregnate their mothers without their knowledge. After shocking results from an at-home DNA test, the plaintiffs discovered they were half-siblings. They both brought claims of negligence, fraudulent concealment, lack of informed consent, and unfair trade practices, citing the mental anguish and physical injury they have suffered as a result of their discovery.
Plaintiff Flaherty alleges that he sustained and continues to suffer mental anguish and physical injury through his emotional and psychological well-being, as a result of the defendant’s conduct. The court found that because Flaherty doesn’t require any extraordinary care for his injury, this claim is precluded. Further, plaintiff Suprynowicz alleges that she suffers from a genetic condition as a result of the defendant’s negligence that “limits her earning capacity and impairs her ability to earn a living.” The court responded that because the plaintiff never had a wage-earning capacity taken away by the doctor’s conduct, she could not claim compensation for its loss.
Overall, the court found that the plaintiffs’ claims fell under the category of “wrongful life,” a cause of action that has been declined by the majority of courts in the country. The court argued that the plaintiffs could not recover for harm resulting from the achievement of life, and also raised concerns about the difficulty of quantifying damages in cases involving the weighing of an impaired life against no life at all.
Thankfully, there is some hope for change. In January 2023, a federal bill was introduced to establish that it is a criminal offense for medical professionals to knowingly misrepresent the nature or source of DNA used in any procedure that involves assisted reproductive technology. The Protecting Families from Fertility Fraud Act proposes a new federal crime under the Sexual Assault chapter, which would provide greater clarity and legal protection to those affected by fertility fraud.
 Lindsey L. Wallace, Netflix’s Our Father Tells The True Story of a Fertility Doctor Who Used His Own Sperm on Patients, Times (May 12, 2022, 5:54 PM), https://time.com/6176310/our-father-true-story-netflix/.
 Wallace, supra note 1.
 Suprynowicz v. Tohan, X03-CV-21-6140245-S, 2023 WL 2134547, at *1 (Conn. Feb. 17, 2023).
 Id. at *2.
 Id. at *5.
 Suprynowicz, 2023 WL 2134547, at *5.
 Id. at *4.
 Press Release, U.S. Congressman Joseph Morelle, Congressman Joe Morelle Acts To Combat Fertility Fraud (Feb. 9, 2023), https://morelle.house.gov/media/press-releases/congressman-joe-morelle-acts-combat-fertility-fraud.
Image Source: https://www.theverge.com/c/23157354/doctor-donor-fertility-fraud-ancestry-23andme-dna-test