MARION COUNTY, IN. - Most of them believed for decades that an anonymous sperm donor, a medical resident or dental student, was their biological father. A few thought the fathers who raised them had contributed half their genes.
Now about 20 of those people, most of whom live in Indiana, believe they most likely have the same biological father: the Indianapolis fertility doctor who treated all their mothers.
For Julie Harmon and her parents, who always thought that the man who raised her was her biological father, the revelation has been nothing short of devastating.
“It’s hard for me to fathom that somebody can do this and basically get away with this,” said Harmon, 35, of New Palestine. “He took away the ability for my dad to have a biological child.”
That man, Dr. Donald Cline, is expected to face a pretrial hearing in Marion County this fall on charges of obstruction of justice that accuse him of misleading investigators from the Indiana attorney general’s office by denying that he used his own sperm to inseminate patients.
Cline has pleaded not guilty. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
A probable cause affidavit filed last year asserts that he told one of his biological daughters that he felt pressured to use his own sperm when he did not have access to donor sperm. He told some of the siblings he was just trying to help people have babies.
The children who believe they were conceived via the doctor’s sperm have been waiting for months for court action. Some have come forward to publicly share their stories.
Breaking the news
After learning Cline likely was her biological father, Harmon said she cried every day for four months. The most difficult day was when she told her father a genetic test had linked her as a half sibling to the several others likely conceived with Cline’s sperm.
“It was the worst thing I ever had to do in my entire life. It makes me cry now. It was horrible,” she said. “He was speechless, devastated. He still to this point can’t really talk about it.”
Harmon and her mother spoke with detectives on Cline’s case, but they said they were told no other charges can be brought against the 78-year-old doctor because his patient records no longer exist. Still, she and others would like to see him at least stripped of his medical license and come forward to share what happened so many years ago.
Without modern genetics tests, Cline’s source for sperm could not be determined. But sites such as 23andme.com, which performs DNA testing, and the Donor, Offspring, Parent & Sibling Registry, which connects gamete donors to offspring, helped Jacoba Ballard and seven other siblings connect a few years ago. Soon, they suspected something was awry.
Not only did they share genes, they learned, but a common story of origin. Cline had promised each of their parents he would use sperm from an anonymous donor and that that sperm would be used no more than three times to conceive a child.
In 2016, DNA sites provided a clue that that sperm donor might not have been anonymous at all: One of Cline’s first cousins was identified as a close relative.
Eventually Ballard and a few other siblings met with Cline and they say he admitted he had used his own sperm at least a few times.
How many times, they asked. His answer vacillated, Ballard said. At first he said seven to 10 times and then 50.
Seeking the truth, Ballard, 37, kept pushing Cline for a precise count.
Eventually, she and the others came into contact on their own with a total of up to 20 people who say they believe Cline likely is their biological father.
Now. Ballard worries that her half siblings or their descendants might unwittingly meet, date and marry. The knowledge that more siblings could be out there still haunts her and the others.
“I don’t want a relationship with him, but I want the truth,” she said. “I’m mad at the fact that I share DNA with somebody that cannot tell the truth, because that is not me.”
In late 2014, Ballard and some other siblings filed a complaint with the Indiana attorney general’s office, which conducted an investigation. In letters sent to investigators, according to court records, Cline denied ever using his own sperm.
Two years later, Ballard shared her story with Fox59. The reporter reached out to the Marion County prosecutor’s office, which decided to take a closer look and submit Cline to a paternity test, according to court records.
DNA swabs showed more than a 99 percent certainty that Cline was the biological father of Ballard and one of her newfound siblings.
Other doctors have been accused of similar acts over the years. In 1992, a Virginia doctor was convicted of fraud and perjury for lying to patients he inseminated with his own sperm. The doctor was linked to 15 individuals, but prosecutors said he might have fathered as many as 75 children.
No laws exist to specifically prohibit doctors from inseminating patients with their own sperm. Ballard and some of her siblings would like to see such a law passed here, but they have had no success so far in persuading lawmakers.
Nor is there much information whether such situations have a long-term, detrimental impact on the children who discover the truth.
But it is clear that it will have at least some impact, agree experts like Janet Malek, an associate professor of medical ethics and health policy at Baylor College of Medicine.
“The big thing is that it disrupts their narrative and sense of identity. They have this story they have told themselves,” she said. “This changes your self image. It’s like finding out your mother was raped.”
Matt White, 34, never had any interest in finding his biological father. But after seeing a news account about the Cline case, he grew curious, knowing that his mother had seen the doctor before his birth. He said DNA test results showed Cline was most likely his biological father.
That knowledge changed White's life.
“It’s hard to not get consumed about it, especially at the beginning. It’s really all I thought about. … No one will ever understand unless you live through it,” he said. “For four to six months, I walked around town, since I live in this community, saying, ‘Hmm, do you look like me? Could you be my brother or sister?' That’s a real, real possibility.”
Now, he talks with some of his newfound sisters often. Other siblings have been less interested in a relationship. New siblings still crop up. Cline has four children with his wife.
Face to face
A few months ago, White attended a hearing for Cline, along with some of his siblings and his mother, Liz. Neither of them spoke to the man.
“It was the first time in my life that I had both biological parents in one room,” said White, whose own two children were conceived through donor sperm. “I don’t know if I have a good answer for you why I went. Maybe curiosity.”
His mother Liz White had met Cline before, several times, but wanted to support her son and the other children. She had no kind words for a man who was once known as one of the best fertility specialists in Indiana.
By the time White made it to Cline’s office, she had seen five other specialists, all of whom had used frozen sperm. She and her husband had started the process to adopt.
The idea of an anonymous donor appealed to White, 29 at the time and now 65. She liked the fact that she wouldn’t know who he was and he wouldn’t know who she was. That anonymity offered both sides protection, she thought.
For five months, she visited Cline’s office. Only once did she see another person, another patient in the waiting room. Each time, Cline would set her up in an exam room, leave the room and come back in a few minutes with a filled syringe. She never questioned what he might be doing in that other room
Today, she considers it a "virtual rape.”
Dianna Kiesler, Harmon’s mother, now questions everything that Cline told her more than three decades ago and the many times she recommended him to friends suffering from infertility. After about a year of seeing Cline with no results, she and her husband decided to adopt again. At that point Cline told her about a new approach.
She started taking a new drug. For the next three months, Cline artificially inseminated her, with what he told her was both her husband’s sperm and that of an anonymous donor. Later, he told her he was using just her husband’s sperm. So when she found out she was pregnant a few weeks later, she assumed from the start her husband was the biological father.
"Even after I had Julie, I took her back in to show him my daughter because I was so happy that I had finally had a child by my husband,” the New Palestine resident said. “I showed Julie off to him, never once thinking I was showing her off to her father.”
Her daughter, Julie Harmon, had an inkling something about her genetics didn't add up. She knew that her blood type could not belong to a child who was the progeny of a mother and father with the blood types her parents had. Originally, she chalked up the discrepancy to confusion on her parents’ part.
Last fall, though, Harmon saw some of her half siblings on television and noteda resemblance. She messaged Ballard on Facebook, who urged her to take a DNA test. It showed that Harmon was closely related to Ballard and the others.
The news shook Harmon, but it has not disrupted her relationship with the man she always thought was her biological father, the man who raised her and will continue to be her father.
Over time, Harmon has reconciled herself to the likelihood that Cline, if convicted, would serve no jail time, given his age and the charges.
“I just want the justice system to be fair and for him to know that this is not okay and that he has destroyed a lot of lives by doing this,” she said. “What I want first and foremost and above all else, an apology, an apology to my parents, to my dad.”
Call IndyStar reporter Shari Rudavsky at (317) 444-6354. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.