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Fertility doctor's secret creates special kinship decades later

February 25, 2018

Matt White remembers that day in September 2016 when a mystery began to unravel that would change his life.

It started when White read a news report that Dr. Donald Cline, a retired Indianapolis fertility specialist, faced charges for lying when he denied he'd inseminated unwitting patients with his sperm decades ago. He checked Cline's address; it was the location of his mother's former doctor. Then he found a photo online, and saw that he resembled Cline.

"It was just too similar to be coincidental," he says. White had long known he was a donor baby, but that day, he had an eerie feeling he was staring at the man who was likely his biological father.

Around the same time, Julie Harmon saw a TV news story about Cline. She'd discovered years earlier her blood type indicated she wasn't the child of both her parents. She didn't follow up then, but after watching the report, she says, "I knew something was wrong."

The TV story featured Jacoba Ballard, whose mother, like Harmon's, had been Cline's patient. Harmon contacted Ballard, and they traded photos.

"I looked at pictures of her, and I knew," Harmon says. "We even part our hair the same."

These two women and White recently crowded into an Indianapolis courtroom to hear Cline receive a one-year suspended sentence for lying to investigators when he denied wrongdoing; DNA tests determined he's the biological father of Ballard and another woman whose mother was his patient. Cline apologized "for the pain my actions have caused" but didn't specify how often he used his own sperm in procedures. Court documents say he told Ballard about 50 times.

No other charges were filed against the 79-year-old Cline because Indiana law doesn't specifically prohibit fertility doctors from using their own sperm.

The case wasn't the first of its kind. In Virginia, Dr. Cecil Jacobson was convicted in 1992 of fraud and perjury for using his sperm to impregnate patients without telling them. A measure pushed by Ballard and others was introduced in the Indiana Senate this year to make it a crime for doctors to treat patients for infertility by using their own sperm or egg without consent. The measure didn't receive a hearing, so it's dead for this session; its sponsor has not yet decided if he'll reintroduce it.

"I feel like our mothers were violated," Ballard says. "He has torn all of our lives apart."

Cline's sentencing, though, wasn't the end of this story.

In an extraordinary epilogue, White, Harmon and Ballard have forged a kinship as they wrestle with the revelation about their identities. They've also reached out to 21 men and women, all in their 30s, who've been identified through DNA tests as half-siblings—evidence, they say, Cline is likely their father, as well.

Many stay in touch through a private Facebook page, and several gathered last fall for a cookout. Harmon and Ballard talk daily. Some prefer to remain private, but others have attended social outings and exchanged childhood photos—and confidences.

"I've shared personal stories that I haven't shared with anyone but my wife," White says. "You have almost this instant bond with people who are not only part of this horrible situation, but you can relate to them on an intimate level."

White says they've joked about having a pool of possible bone marrow and transplant donors, but this DNA discovery has left emotional scars, too. For the three public faces of this unique club, it's been a wrenching experience.

At Cline's sentencing in December, Ballard told the judge "there has not been one part of my life that has not suffered." Her DNA match to Cline was 99.9997, court records show.

In 2014, Ballard, who knew she was a donor child, had become curious about her family history and thought she might be able to find some siblings. She took a DNA test from 23andMe, a biotech company that uses saliva samples to determine ancestry and identify distant and close relatives, health risks and physical traits.

Ballard's results listed seven half-siblings. She and two others assembled a family tree and realized their mothers had been Cline's patients.

Ballard and a group of the half-siblings met with Cline, and she says he told conflicting stories, finally saying he'd donated sperm about 50 times to help unknowing patients who desperately wanted children. Ballard and a woman whom DNA tests determined is a half-sister filed complaints with the Indiana attorney general's office. Cline at first denied he'd been a donor but later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. "I was foolish in my actions, and I should not have lied," he said at his sentencing.

Harmon, who was linked to Ballard through a 23andMe test, always believed she had a biological bond with her father. "Then, 35 years later, for that to be ripped away from you ... I've lost my entire identity," she says. Her mother, Dianna Kiesler, says that based on discussions with Cline, she thought her husband was her donor and she was able to conceive with the help of drugs Cline prescribed.

Harmon says whenever she receives an online notification that a DNA test has identified another half-sibling, she, Ballard or White will check Facebook for mutual friends who can explain the situation. Otherwise, one of the three will try. "Most of these people who are taking these tests have no idea that they have just opened up Pandora's box," she says.

Some prefer no further contact, but Harmon has befriended others.

"I consider all of them my brothers and sisters," she says.

White, who was also linked to the two women by DNA tests, clicked instantly with another half-sister who was a 99.998 DNA match to Cline. At their first meeting, they talked for five hours.

White says he's opened up with his new half-siblings, even discussing his own infertility. His two children were conceived through in vitro fertilization. "I've pretty much given up all my life's secrets," he says.

With DNA tests becoming more popular, White believes their group will grow.

"To think we've found all of us in a two-year period?" he asks. "That's not likely. There's got to be many more children out there."

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