When we first meet geneticist Brad Gulko in the new HBO documentary Baby God, he’s peering into a microscope and reflecting on the precision of today’s genetic tests. We soon learn Gulko isn’t just being interviewed as a genomics expert for the film about an infamous fertility specialist who artificially inseminated countless women without their knowledge or consent.
Gulko has recently discovered the shocking secret that Dr. Quincy Fortier is his biological father.
At this point, the late Fortier is such a stranger to Gulko, he’s not even sure how to pronounce the physician’s last name. Yet as Gulko stands next to a photo of the balding, bespectacled Fortier, the father-son resemblance is impossible to miss. And Fortier’s unscrupulous actions from decades ago reverberate for Gulko today in ways the 50-something scientist can only begin to comprehend.
“People who don’t share DNA with their parents, and don’t know they don’t share DNA with their parents, may feel that they’re not just different but somehow wrong,” Gulko says. He recalls feeling out of sync growing up as a socially awkward child of the extroverted, socially adept man he thought was his father.
It’s one of many poignant observations made in Baby God, streaming now. The film follows several of Fortier’s offspring as they grapple with new information about their origins, the scope of Fortier’s misdeeds (including the alleged sexual abuse of at least one stepdaughter) and the impact his actions — and genes — have had on their identities.
“I know there’s got to be some influence from his genetics in me. I just want to know what that is,” says Wendi Babst, a retired police detective who once worked on major crimes. She discovered the family secret after taking up genealogy as a hobby and now is pondering having surgery to change her nose, which reminds her all too painfully of Fortier’s.
One man in his thirties describes being so distraught after learning the identity of his biological father that he became physically ill for a month and a half.
Baby God, directed and produced by Hannah Olson, builds slowly, but evolves into a provocative, powerful story that tackles morality, medical ethics, self-delusion, family bonds and the very nature of life itself.
The film is also a comment on the march of scientific progress — as one of Fortier’s children notes, the inseminations took place before sperm banks. Fortier never could have imagined inexpensive home DNA kits available to anyone with an internet connection.
“In those days, they didn’t even understand DNA,” says Dr. Frank Silver, a gynecologist who practiced with Fortier years ago and thinks he probably talked himself into believing he was doing a great service, though “bad means don’t justify the end.”
Fortier, who opened a Las Vegas practice in 1945, is estimated to have hundreds of children, who now range in age from their thirties to their seventies, with more continuing to come forward. Babst’s mother, Cathy Holm, describes being a 22-year-old bride in the 1960s, when motherhood was expected to immediately follow marriage and all her friends already had kids but she couldn’t get pregnant.
She found Fortier in the phone book under fertility specialists, made an appointment and was instructed to bring in samples of her husband’s sperm. Unbeknownst to her until many years later, Fortier injected her with his own.
Old home movies that look like something straight out of Mad Men show a pregnant Holm, and then Holm and her happy husband with their toddler Wendi.
Over time, Holm recalls, she would fleetingly reflect on the fact that Wendi didn’t look anything like the man Holm married. “I’d think, ‘Gee, it’s really funny that she doesn’t really resemble her father’s side of the family at all. As she grew up. I thought, where’d she get all these brains? She didn’t get them from me, and I didn’t think her father was all that smart.”
By all accounts, Fortier, Wendi’s covert biological father, was more than smart — he was brilliant. But what motivated his deep deception, which led one former patient to sue him, resulting in a settlement in 2001?
Baby God can only offer speculation. Fortier died in 2006 at age 94 in good standing, having never lost his license, and only appears in the film in brief audio clips. Theories cover the gamut — one of the daughters he raised insists his secret inseminations were merely an extension of a lifelong devotion to patients and their well-being.
Others have a dramatically different view, seeing only evil, a twisted sense of morality and pure hubris. Wonders a mother, now in her nineties, who was inseminated by Fortier, “Was he trying to see how many people he could have on this Earth before he left?” In an especially disturbing twist, the young newlywed hadn’t even consulted Fortier for a fertility issue, and ended up undergoing a procedure that left her pregnant at his hands before she even felt ready to have a baby.
“My life may have been altogether different,” she says of Fortier inseminating her in an era when doctors were often viewed as almost godlike. “I’d have gone back to school, but I probably would have gone farther.”
At the same time, she looks at her son Mike with gratitude, saying she wouldn’t have him without Fortier. The film ends with a troubling coda. More than two dozen US doctors, we are told, have been accused of secretly inseminating patients with their own sperm.
For the surviving patients and their children, DNA tests might provide some concrete answers, but many others will remain far less clear-cut, probably forever. “I struggle with whether or not I think he was a good person,” Wendi Babst says. “Do you want to say that your father was a monster? And what does that say about you?”