In the mid-1960s, Cathy Holm was in her early 20s and a new bride — and she wanted a baby. But she and her husband were having trouble conceiving. “Nobody had any solutions,” Holm says near the beginning of the new documentary Baby God, “until I went to Dr. Fortier.”
She’s referring to Quincy Fortier, a revered, kindly Las Vegas fertility specialist who was considered something of a miracle worker when it came to helping women conceive. Like many other hopeful mothers over the years, Holm visited Fortier, who was able to give her a daughter, Wendi Babst. But that happy ending had one more twist: After retiring from her career as a detective, Babst decided she needed a hobby, so she got into genealogy. Receiving her results from an online kit, Babst was surprised to discover that she had a lot of matches, including several half-siblings. “I knew something wasn’t right,” Babst says in the film. “The only name I kept seeing was ‘Fortier.’ I knew I needed to talk to my mother. I said, ‘I did a DNA test, and my dad’s not my dad.’”
Babst wasn’t alone in learning a terrible truth: Her biological father was the fertility specialist tasked with aiding her mother’s pregnancy. Fortier, who died in 2006 at the age of 94, was beloved during his lifetime, receiving “Doctor of the Year” accolades. He saw thousands of patients who wanted a baby. First-time filmmaker Hannah Olson wondered just how many of them had a child with Fortier’s sperm, never knowing that he’d so intimately intervened in such a personal process.
Baby God, which premieres Wednesday on HBO, tells Babst’s story, as well as that of other men and women who only recently found out that Fortier is their biological father. (Before his death, he did settle a handful of lawsuits for using his own sperm to inseminate patients, but a gag order was part of those agreements, which allowed him to maintain his license and reputation.) In the film, we meet people in their 30s as well as people in their 70s who suddenly have to rethink much of what they knew about their identity, trying to come to terms with a man they’d never met who shaped their biology, not to mention masterminded their very existence. Speaking by phone, Olson encapsulates her subjects’ emotional dilemma: “I exist because of a crime.”
Not surprisingly, then, the documentary is a sensitive survivors’ story as Olson travels across the country speaking to some of Fortier’s unwitting children. In between, she interviews Fortier’s colleagues and ponders his life, as well as questions a medical establishment that didn’t have enough safeguards to keep his behavior from happening elsewhere. (Before the end credits, Olson includes on-screen text that says that “more than two dozen U.S. doctors have been accused of secretly inseminating patients with their own sperm.”) Just as horrifying, Baby God includes accusations that Fortier sexually abused his own children — including one adopted daughter, who got pregnant from the rape.
But Olson takes pains to insist that her movie isn’t about this monster, instead turning her attention to the adults now reeling from this shocking news about their parentage. With Fortier long dead, how do they pick up the pieces? In our interview, Olson talked about what drew her to this story and how it intersects with the #MeToo movement. And she doesn’t have many kind things to say about a society that permitted Fortier to practice with impunity. “He died in good standing because his license was never revoked,” she says. “Here’s this guy who has all these accolades and is a powerful man. How was this allowed to happen?”
Children can go through depression after learning they’re adopted. Suddenly, they question their identity — they feel less certain about who they are. While watching Baby God, I thought about that — and that your subjects are discovering something similar, but far more unsettling.
In some ways, I wanted the film to be the story of watching people cope. I was so curious about this alien, unimaginable thing where you learn, totally by accident and partway through life, that your father isn’t your biological father. I was so curious about what that would feel like and how that would affect a person.
All of the interviews that I did, it was really fresh after [my subjects’] discovery. In some ways, [the interviews] felt like these big therapy sessions. Brad [Gulko], the scientist in the film [who was conceived by Fortier], said something really interesting: People who are adopted and know that they’re adopted know that they’re genetically different from their family, and that might help to explain some different proclivities or different tendencies or interests. But people who don’t share genes with their family — and don’t know that they don’t share genes with their family — might find it a relief later on: “This is why I was different.”
But they all coped in very different ways. Wendi coped by investigating, Brad coped by trying to analyze it, but I think they all felt a little different from their families always. And in some ways the revelation was something of a relief.
Did any of the people you talked to express worry that perhaps Fortier’s behavior could somehow be passed along to them? That they could have this genetic disposition toward being molesters?
I talked to Brad about that just a few days ago, actually. The way he said it I thought was great: DNA gives us a bias, but it’s not our fate. Learning about the abusive patterns of his biological father did make him go back and look at his life, but also realize that DNA isn’t fate.
But, yeah, it did make people look differently at their own lives and question things. Wendi has that line in the film: “What does that say about you if your father is a monster?”
The film, in some ways, seems to be a referendum on women’s health care in this country — and how flawed it is.
By and large, the crime that Dr. Fortier committed wouldn’t be committed today, because we know how easy it is to spit in a vial and send it away for $99 and see your ancestry back 500 years. I don’t think it will happen quite as much — and also, sperm has since been commodified. We can buy and sell it — you can get it on Craigslist.
But the attitudes that exist — the doctor-knows-best attitude, the “Well, it might be better if you don’t know” attitude that I think is sometimes put on women — [that] persists. Like the scene [in the film] of the doctor showing [pictures of his patients’] vaginas to me on his cellphone — I wanted to show that there is this kind of cavalier way of looking at women’s health.
Also, there are no federal laws regulating the fertility industry. [All a] doctor has to report is their success rate, so it’s treated as a consumer product — you get the baby, done deal. It’s not something that’s regulated or seen as something that’s a health concern.
Has there been much of a movement to change that?
Five states have fertility fraud legislation. But the fertility industry is enormous, and they have a powerful lobby. It’s important to them that [it stays] unregulated.
Before I watched Baby God, I thought I knew this story — I’d heard about doctors who inseminated their patients. But I hadn’t heard about Fortier. As you mention at the end, dozens of doctors have done this. I had no idea how rampant this behavior was.
It’s interesting that you say that. For the past two, three years now that I’ve been working on this film, I’d talk about it with people, who said, “What are you working on?” And I’d say, “Oh, it’s all about a doctor who secretly inseminated a patient with his own sperm.” Eight out of 10 people would say, “Oh, I’ve heard that story.” And I was like, “Well, no, you haven’t, because there hasn’t been reporting on this guy. You’ve heard about another one.”
It’s unthinkable for most people that there would be more than one doctor that has done this, because it seems like kind of this rogue, freak event. But in reality, it was a phenomenon. And it’s a phenomenon that came about partially because of need — there were no sperm banks. And it was also a perfect crime — you’d never find out. As one doctor said in the film, he saw it like giving blood. It’s also something to do with narcissism and ego and a male urge to spread their seed.
Did someone tell you about Fortier? Is that how you got into this story?
I worked on a show called Finding Your Roots for many years. And in that time, I watched the world of genealogy change drastically. It used to be, “Oh, we’re going to find this person’s birth certificate, and it lists their mom and their dad. And then we’ll find the mother’s birth certificate that will list her mother and father. And we’ll use that to build the family tree.”
But in the past couple of years, DNA testing has blown that apart. All of a sudden, we started having to tell people that their father wasn’t who they thought their father was — and that their grandfather wasn’t who they thought their grandfather was. I became really interested [in] how that would feel. The genetic genealogist on the show and I were having a conversation about one of these guests who we had to tell their father wasn’t their father. And she said, “Oh, have you seen the story about the doctor with the sperm?” I googled that and started looking around and I noticed that it wasn’t just one doctor. It felt like a lot of the coverage was focusing [more] on the perpetrators than the crime. There was no look at how someone lives with it or makes sense of it.
This is such a specialized crime. Are there support groups?
One of the things that I found interesting is that this is a phenomenon that exists largely because of the internet. You go on the internet and you look at your DNA, and then you can see the people that match [your] DNA. But a lot of the support that exists is also on the internet. There’s Facebook groups for donor-confused children. There’s a Facebook group called DNA Detectives. So much of the support that exists is on chatrooms, which is how I did a lot of the casting for the film.
How easy was it to get people to talk?
I only talked to people who wanted to talk to me. There are plenty of Dr. Fortier’s children who are out there who didn’t want to share their story as part of the documentary. And I had to respect that, because this is such an intimate story. It’s a dark story.
So you found your subjects by searching the internet?
Wendi was the first person that I met, and she would get an alert each time she would get a half-sibling. So we had a system where one of the siblings would say to this new sibling, “Hey, you’re probably wondering why you have, like, 15 siblings. Look up Dr. Fortier — that’s your biological father.” Then some time would pass, and we’d say, “Hey, by the way, we’re doing a documentary. Do you have any interest in sharing [your] experience as part of the film?” And I was surprised to discover that many of the people did want to participate in the documentary — what they were going through was so alien that they wanted someone to talk about it with. It’s not something that a normal therapist sees every day.
When it comes to questions of identity, it’s often a nature-versus-nurture debate. With Baby God, it seems like it’s more nuanced than that.
I got more questions than answers. I [thought] that we could get the answers — if we just got the facts, we would know all the answers. But in the end, it became much more a film about trying to make peace with one’s parents. How do our parents impact us through their actions? Why are we the way we are? That was what was most interesting to me, even though they sound so kind of childlike, those questions.
You interview some of Fortier’s peers, who flippantly talk about donating sperm back when they were in medical school. They reminded me of friends who did that in college. It was easy money, but never once did they think about the end result — that they might have helped create a child that they’d never see.
Part of the reason I wanted to include the colleagues is to show some of the attitudes around giving sperm. The men I know who’ve donated sperm don’t really think about it. But this person who took a moment to donate sperm may hold some clues to a child’s identity. That child’s trying to figure out who they are or why they are the way they are — and you might hold those answers.
This is outside the scope of your film, but I couldn’t help but wonder what rules there are around sperm donation in this country.
Some states have laws about how many times one can donate in the population. And then there are basically laws [so you don’t have] a bunch of people who have the same father and don’t know it in one area, who might end up having children together accidentally. And then there are laws around the sperm [being] tested for STDs. But other than that, there’s very, very little regulation and no national regulation.
Baby God also intersects with the #MeToo movement.
I was interested in how sexual violence played out in this arena — my interest in the film was sparked by the renewed conversations about consent and sexual violence. But a lot of the #MeToo reporting I’ve seen looks very much at the perpetrators and not so much at the victims. So often with sexual violence, the journey for the victims can be painful, circuitous and unfinished; it can leave one with more questions. I wanted the film to be true to that experience.
But the film also discusses the pressure that women face in our society: “You haven’t lived a fulfilling life if you aren’t a mother.” It creates an opportunity for someone like Fortier to flourish.
Totally, and I tried to get at that at the beginning of the film with Cathy: “Everyone around me was having a baby.” There’s this identity pressure [for women] — “You’re not a full woman if you don’t have a baby” — but there’s also that pressure for men, this embarrassment of infertility. It wasn’t until after World War II that we even admitted that men could be the cause of infertility — it was always seen as, like, “the fruitless woman.” So it plays into those gender roles in terms of reproduction: A woman is in need of a child, and the doctor covers for the infertile man.
This revelation that some of Fortier’s own children said he molested them — is this common in other doctors who inseminated their patients? Is there a pattern or connection in those behaviors?
Not that I know of, no. But I do think that they both are to do with a disregard of consent. One has a lot of power over one’s patients, and one has a lot of power over one’s children — they’re connected, I think.
I saw an interview where you mentioned that you’re interested in exploring moral gray areas. How does that apply to Baby God?
At the onset, I was talking to Dr. Fortier’s colleagues, looking for his textbooks, trying to find out if this [behavior] was commonplace. I was trying to find some way to figure out his morality. When you look closer, it just becomes about power. But [the moral gray area] is because it’s a life-giving crime. The victims wouldn’t exist without the crime having taken place. And that makes for some grayness.
It must create conflicted feelings for your subjects.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the central things that may be difficult to cope with: “I exist because of a crime.” I mean, that’s not unique to them — that happens also to children born from rape and other forms of sexual violence. It’s something to grapple with.
You also talk to two of his children, Nannette and Sonia, whom he adopted in his 50s while he was going through a divorce. They stand by their father, although there are accusations in Baby God from his children from that previous marriage that he did sexually assault them. Sonia especially doesn’t seem like she even wants to imagine the possibility that he raped her siblings. It’s one of the hardest scenes in the whole movie. How did you approach talking to these two women?
I tried to bring the same sense of empathy. I mean, these two daughters were adopted by him, so I tried to understand what it might feel like to be adopted by a person and then you have horrible revelations come out about the person who adopted you — the person [who] took care of you. I imagine that that would be really difficult. I tried to empathize with that.
I also think that people contain multitudes and can be different ways to different people. So I didn’t want to deny the experience that they had with their father. That’s not mine to take away from them. But at the same time, it was my job to get some truth for the people who were trying to figure out who this man was because they exist because of him. It was balancing [his adopted daughters’] desire for privacy — and my desire to respect their privacy — with wanting to have some justice and truth.
What does justice look like for your subjects? Did they want revenge on this man?
Wendi said that she thought that she could get justice by just telling the truth. The statute of limitations has run out, and he’s died, but just by validating this totally bizarre experience, that felt good for people. The subjects really liked the film because I think it’s true to their experience. Wendi says that’s what they have most in common — it’s not the DNA, but the experience of having gone through this.