'Am I a child of something unspeakable?'
HBO's documentary Baby God released late last year is an exposé of a prominent Nevada gynaecologist who over the course of his career is thought to have impregnated hundreds of women with his own sperm. The real kicker? His patients had no idea. Some came to him for fertility treatment, expecting to be inseminated with their husband's sperm, and others came to him for unrelated procedures and were inseminated without their knowledge. The ruse only came to light with the advent of direct-to-consumer genetic testing and his unknowing children's natural curiosity to learn more about their family through online genealogy sites.
Told from the perspective of Dr Quincy Fortier's surviving patients and offspring, the story reveals the many secrets the once-beloved doctor kept over the course of his 60-year career. The film is moored by one sibling, who was an investigator before she retired and took up genealogy as a hobby. She has found half siblings born in the 1940s through to the late 1980s – demonstrating that the abuse spanned decades. Dr Fortier (yes, 'Dr' is still appropriate as his medical licence was never revoked) died in 2006 at the age of 93. While he did face legal actions, he never spent one day in prison for his crimes.
At times, Baby God dips painfully close to attempting to elicit sympathy from the viewer for the late doctor. For most of the film it appears that director and producer Hannah Olson tried to play devil's advocate. Dr Fortier's actions did, after all, result in the birth of children who otherwise may have not been born. And while his patients did not know of his insemination techniques, Dr Fortier's son claims his father openly told his family of his activities. He remembers his father saying, 'I'm just helping out.'
The director's choices seem to push viewers to question whether or not Dr Fortier's actions were all that bad. At worst, it was morally questionable, existing in a medical grey area. At best, he was a good doctor who made a bad judgment call. It is not until the end of the feature when the other shoe drops, and it is revealed that Dr Fortier had been a paedophile all along. He abused his children regularly and ultimately inseminated his own daughter. This eleventh hour reveal really hammers home the point that viewers should question the morality of the doctor's choices: maybe it wasn't all that bad, if only, of course, he hadn't been a paedophile.
While frustrating, in Olson's defence, in the context of the United States' legal landscape, this stance is par for the course. With the advent of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, more cases like Dr Fortier's are coming to light, and the US is scrambling to figure out how to promote justice in this area of abuse. To date, only a handful of states have rules on the books explicitly protecting women from this kind of 'fertility fraud' (see BioNews 1064). And only one classifies it as a form of sexual assault. I simply wish Olson wouldn't have played so strongly into this 'maybe it wasn't all that bad' narrative – there is no grey area here.
This documentary has other shortcomings too. Paradoxically, it seems to have a problem of both attempting to cram in too much and stretch out too little into a feature-length film. Many questions go unanswered and story lines emerge and disappear without any apparent reason. For example, the film briefly includes interviews with Dr Fortier's two associates who both seem worthy of their own documentaries. In one scene, an associate proudly produces photos of his patients' reproductive organs on his cell phone, which were mingled with photos of California sunsets and his 'cute' romantic interests.
The film also briefly skims over the history of fertility treatment in America, brushing past the fact that this era of fertility medicine was akin to the wild west. Doctors were treating infertility at a time when little was known about the condition and there were few, if any, safeguards for sperm donations, like sperm washing and donor screening. Yet instead of dedicating time to exploring these story lines, time is filled up with a frustrating amount of 'filler', long scenes depicting cells moving through the stages of mitosis and extended shots panning the unremarkable rooms in which the survivors sat for their interviews. The story may have been better served in HBO's signature miniseries format, where additional time would allow for a more nuanced telling.
While the documentary has its problems, at its core it is a fascinating true crime story with plenty of twists and turns. In pre-COVID times, this is not a documentary I would have vigorously encouraged my friends to rush to the theatres to see, but in the COVID era, with almost endless time to consume media, I would grant Baby God a spot on the pandemic watchlist.
Baby God is currently available on both Amazon, Hulu and HBO Max.