A Decades-Old Doctor’s Secret Leads to New Fertility-Fraud Law

In the ’70s and ’80s, Donald Cline fathered more than 50 children by using his own sperm in his patients. A new law makes such actions illegal.

Donald Cline told his patients he was using sperm from anonymous donors—when in fact he was using his own. (Alyssa Shukar / The Atlantic)

In 2014, 23andMe tests revealed a decades-old secret in Indianapolis: A local fertility doctor named Donald Cline had secretly used his own sperm to impregnate his patients in the ’70s and ’80s. As the popularity of DNA tests grew over the next few years, so did the count of his known biological children. They now number more than 50. And they have all learned—to their surprise—that no law in Indiana specifically prohibited Cline from using his own sperm in patients.

On Sunday, Indiana’s governor signed the first such law in the country. “Indiana’s taking a stance—that behavior is not appropriate,” says Matt White, who discovered that he was Cline’s biological child in 2016. White’s mother, Liz, had gone to Cline for infertility treatment, using what she thought was an anonymous sperm donor in the 1980s. The Whites, along with several of Matt’s newfound half siblings, initiated the push for the new Indiana fertility-fraud law. (I wrote about their story in the April issue of The Atlantic.)

Cline’s case is just one of several uncovered in this new era of DNA testing. In Texas, after finding out her biological father is her mother’s fertility doctor, a woman named Eve Wiley is advocating for a bill that would make a doctor’s using his own sperm criminal sexual assault. The bill has passed the state Senate. There are also ongoing lawsuits in Idaho, Vermont, California, Canada, and the Netherlands, all brought by former patients or their children against doctors accused of using their own sperm.

One genealogist told me she has seen so many cases of fertility doctors secretly acting as donors  that “when I see these large groups of half siblings, it’s actually the first thing I think about now.” Not all of the patients or their children are angry with the doctors, but those who are have had to contend with the question of what exactly the doctors did wrong, legally speaking.

In the 1990s, federal prosecutors pursued a case against Cecil B. Jacobson, a fertility doctor in Virginia also accused of using his sperm to artificially inseminate his patients. Prosecutors allege that he fathered as many as 75 children this way, but they could not prosecute him for doing so. “However morally questionable those actions are,” wrote The New York Times in 1992, “there are no laws prohibiting a doctor from donating sperm to a patient or impregnating an unwitting woman with his sperm.” Jacobson was ultimately convicted of 52 counts of perjury and fraud, including mail fraud for bills he sent to patients he deceived and wire fraud for phone calls to them.

When local prosecutors looked into Cline’s case 20 years later, they found no Indiana laws that prohibited the secret use of a doctor’s own sperm either. And because it all happened more than 30 years ago, they had no records. “If it happened today,” the prosecutor on Cline’s case told me, “I think there would be opportunities to pursue theories of prosecution that didn't exist here.” Ultimately, Cline was charged with two counts of felony obstruction of justice, for letters he had sent denying the allegations when he was first informed of an investigation. The doctor, who was already retired, lost his medical license and was fined $500.

White felt that Cline got little more than “a slap on the wrist.” When I met him, his mother, and several of his half siblings in Indianapolis last fall, they were busy writing letters and meeting with state legislators. White sent me regular emails about new hearings and new co-sponsors  throughout the winter. The bill, now signed into law, makes fertility fraud a felony, but the criminal determination will not apply to Cline retroactively. However, the bill does allow patients, their spouses, and their children to sue in civil court. “We got this law to protect people more so going forward into the future,” White says, but he is also open to pursuing additional actions against Cline in civil court.

The state of California has a general fertility-fraud law, but Indiana’s is the first law to single out fertility doctors using their own reproductive material. “It has huge symbolic value,” says Jody Madeira, a law professor at Indiana University who advocated for the legislation. She told me several more people—in fertility-doctor cases that have not yet become public—have contacted her to ask about pursuing legal action.