“The Fertility Doctor’s Secret,” a longform report for The Atlantic about doctor Donald Cline of Indianapolis, reports dozens of facts — but is bound to disappoint readers who are reasonably informed about Christian teaching on infertility.
There are mere traces of religion in Sarah Zhang’s coverage, and too little digging deeper on remarks that beg for attention. In other word, this story has religion-shaped holes in it.
But first the basic narrative: Cline, who opened his clinic in 1979, is believed to be the father of at least eight children by virtue of using his sperm to impregnant unknowing patients.
That this story has come to light is one of the perverse miracles of connecting through Facebook and discovering the secrets of one’s DNA through consumer-focused DNA testing offered by 23andMe and Ancestry.com.
We’re told twice that Cline cited Bible verses to these now-grown humans, which raises some interesting factual questions. Zhang presents a sole example:
For months, nothing much happened. Then one of [Jacoba] Ballard’s half sisters went for it. She found Cline’s children — those he raised with his wife — and his adult grandchildren on Facebook and sent them a group message. A granddaughter replied, saying she didn’t know anything and couldn’t help.
But then, Ballard says, she got a message from Cline’s son. He had been looking through her Facebook photos and recognized her priest — he said he was Catholic too. He helped broker a meeting between his father and six of the siblings at a restaurant. Cline, who was then in his late 70s, walked in with a cane.
Ballard remembers this first family reunion of sorts as oddly matter-of-fact. Cline admitted to using his own sperm but said the records had been destroyed years ago. He asked each of the siblings what they did and where they lived. He read them Bible verses from a notepad. Ballard saw this as a misguided attempt to comfort her, and she snapped at him: “Don’t try to use my religion.”
Late in the story — in the 101st paragraph, to be specific — Zhang reveals only one example of Bible-thumping:
What particularly galled some of the siblings was how Cline used his faith as deflection. By all accounts, he is a very religious man — for his sentencing, several elders from his evangelical church wrote letters attesting to his character. After the restaurant meeting, Cline called Ballard to say her digging up the past was destroying his marriage: His wife considered his actions adultery. In the call, which Ballard recorded, Cline told her he regretted what he’d done — though he admitted to using his own sperm only nine or 10 times — and quoted Jeremiah 1:5, in which God lays out his plan for the prophet: “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.” Again, Ballard felt he was using her faith to try to manipulate her.
This is, at the risk of understatement, a novel interpretation of that very famous Old Testament text.
But Zhang is silent on this point, offering little context for what Cline meant by this citation. It did not help that Cline declined Zhang’s interview request.
That Ballard is a Catholic — and Zhang identifies Cline as a generic evangelical, which can mean almost anything — adds to the sense that this longform report is missing out on a deeply significant angle. It is not as though the Vatican has been silent on the morality of separating conception from sexual intimacy between husband and wife. Begin with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for a concise review of this teaching:
Struggling with infertility and miscarriage is certainly a great burden for couples to bear, especially when they so deeply desire to have a child and live out their vocation to be open to life and welcome the gift of children from God. It is important to remember that despite infertility, couples “can have a married life that is filled with love and meaning.” (see Married Love and the Gift of Life) As Blessed John Paul II has said, infertile couples are able to be fruitful when their married love is “open to others, to the needs of the apostolate … the needs of the poor … the needs of orphans” and to the world. (John Paul II, Homily, 1982; quoted in Married Love and the Gift of Life)
The difficulty when one faces infertility is that its treatment (medical evaluation, protocols, procedures, etc.) must respect God’s design for married love. “In an age of advances in reproductive medicine … some solutions offer real hope for restoring a couple’s natural, healthy ability to have children … [while] others pose serious moral problems by failing to respect the dignity of the couple’s marital relationship, of their sexuality, or of the child.” (Life Giving Love in an Age of Technology)
Instead, Zhang focuses on the lack of a remedy in criminal law, including the inevitable statute that moves a deeply personal wound into detached legal jargon:
Over the next year, Matt [White] and his newfound half siblings watched the criminal case against Cline unfold. He wasn’t charged with rape. He wasn’t charged with battery with bodily waste—Indiana considers that a crime only if it’s done “in a rude, insolent, or angry manner.” He wasn’t charged with criminal deception — any records were long gone. In fact, Cline wasn’t charged for anything he did almost four decades ago. No law in Indiana—or in most other states, for that matter — specifically forbids a doctor from using his own sperm in his patients.
This is one passage in which Zhang drives home the sense of invasion by some former patients of Cline’s:
Until very recently in human history, reproduction always required an act of sexual intimacy. We elide this fact now, with consent forms and dense clinical language and gynecological tools that look brutishly utilitarian. But artificial insemination still requires an exchange of bodily fluids that can be procured only through sexual stimulation. (Consider: the stereotypical drawer of porn magazines at the fertility doctor’s office.) To have your doctor masturbate in his office and then to have that same doctor sit between your legs, injecting his sperm inside you — the edifice separating the clinical and the sexual breaks down completely.
It’s impossible to say exactly what went on inside Cline’s mind then. (I went to his house to interview him, but he said his lawyers had advised him not to talk. His attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.) Some of his donor children told me their mothers did not think of Cline’s actions as sexual when they found out the truth. Some mothers did not think about it much at all.
But White replayed the sequence of events in her mind. She thought of him masturbating in his office. She is a clinical social worker, and she slipped into clinical language to describe what she thought: “A man’s mind following ejaculation — there’s a lot of dopamine, a lot of serotonin and norepinephrine. All of those are mood enhancers that bring about wonderful feelings for them.” She continued: “We came in for a medical procedure.”
More than three decades later, she now says, “I feel like I was raped 15 times.”
In those same three decades, the mores around sex, assisted reproduction, and medical authority have changed, too. When the news about Cline came out, the medical community denounced his actions. “It was a breach of trust between a physician and his patient. One could say immoral,” says Robert Colver, an Indiana fertility specialist who knew Cline. “All of us were shocked.”
Yes, one could say immoral.
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