The Atlantic

The Fertility Doctor’s Secret

Donald Cline must have thought no one would ever know. Then DNA testing came along.
Source: The Voorhes; portraits by Alyssa Schukar; Associated Press

Updated at 5:23 p.m. ET on March 18, 2019.

The first Facebook message arrived when Heather Woock was packing for vacation, in August 2017. It was from a stranger claiming to be her half sibling. She assumed the message was some kind of scam; her parents had never told her she might have siblings. But the message contained one detail that spooked her. The sender mentioned a doctor, Donald Cline. Woock knew that name; her mother had gone to Cline for fertility treatments before she was born. Had this person somehow gotten her mother’s medical history?

Her mom said not to worry. So Woock, who is 33 and lives just outside Indianapolis, flew to the West Coast for her vacation. She got a couple more messages from other supposed half siblings while she was away. Their persistence was strange. But then her phone broke, and she spent the next week and a half outdoors in Seattle and Vancouver, blissfully disconnected.

It was only when she got home and replaced her phone that she saw the barrage of messages from even more half siblings. They had found her on Facebook, she realized, after searching for the username linked to her Ancestry.com account. Her husband had given her a DNA test for Christmas because she was interested in genealogy. Her heritage turned out to be exactly what she had thought—Scottish, with English, Irish, and Scandinavian mixed in—and she never bothered to click on the link that would show whether anyone on the site shared her DNA.

Apparently she did have relatives on Ancestry.com—and not just distant cousins. The people now sending her messages said they were Cline’s secret biological children. They said their parents had also been treated by Cline. They said that decades ago, without ever telling his patients, Cline had used his own sperm to impregnate women who came to him for artificial insemination.

According to her DNA, Woock, too, was one of his children.

In the time since Woock’s half siblings got in touch with her, they have broken the news dozens more times. The children Cline fathered with his patients now number at least 50, confirmed by DNA tests from 23andMe or Ancestry.com.* (Several have a twin or other siblings who likely share the same biological father but haven’t been tested.) They keep in touch through a Facebook group. New siblings pop up in waves, timed perversely after holidays like Christmas or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, when DNA tests are given as well-intentioned gifts.

Like Woock, many of her new siblings learned that they were donor-conceived from a DNA test. (Woock’s parents eventually told her they’d gone to Cline for donor insemination, but they’d had no idea he was the donor.) And in their shock, many also thought the initial messages explaining the situation were part of a scam. But eventually they found news clips laying out that, yes, this doctor deceived his patients, and yes, he used his own sperm, and yes, this is really happening.

At least those finding out now have the benefit of clarity. They won’t have to wander through

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