Review: ‘Baby God,’ starring Wendi Babst, Cathy Holm, Quincy Fortier Jr., Jonathan Stensland, Brad Gulko, Dorothy Otis and Mike Otis

December 2, 2020

by Carla Hay

A 1966 photo of Cathy Holm with her daughter Wendi in “Baby God” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Baby God”

Directed by Hannah Olson

Culture Representation: The documentary “Baby God,” which was filmed in various parts of the U.S. but centers primarily on activities that occurred in Nevada, features an all-white group of people discussing the actions and repercussions of the late Dr. Quincy Fortier, who illegally inseminated an unknown number of women with his semen from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Culture Clash: Several of Fortier’s secret insemination children and their mothers found out years later what Fortier did and had varying reactions to these crimes and violations of their family genetics. 

Culture Audience: “Baby God” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about family secrets or true-crime issues that involve medical doctors.

Wendi Babst in “Baby God” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

The advertisements for home DNA test kits paint a heartwarming picture of people finding out great things about their ancestors and other biological relatives. What the ads never show is the dark side of taking these DNA tests, such as when people find out shocking and vile things about their biological heritage. That’s how numerous people discovered that Dr. Quincy Fortier, a Nevada obstetrician/gynecologist/fertility specialist who died in 2006 at the age of 94, was the biological father they never knew they had.

The reason why people would be horrified or ashamed that Fortier is their biological father is because Fortier illegally impregnated (through artificial insemination) an unknown number of women with his own semen instead of the semen of the correct sperm donors, without the women’s knowledge and consent. Based on DNA test results, it’s estimated that Fortier committed these heinous acts from the 1940 to 1980s. The fascinating but disturbing documentary film “Baby God” (directed by Hannah Olson) is about several women and children whose lives were permanently altered by Fortier’s genetic crimes.

Fortier was a prominent doctor who opened hospitals in Las Vegas and later in the rural town of Pioche. He was even named Doctor of the Year in 1991 by Nevada’s Clark County Medical Society. But beginning in the late 1990s, when DNA tests started to become more prevalent and accessible, Fortier was sued several times by people (former patients and/or their children) who were directly affected by his illegal inseminations. In most cases, the lawsuits were settled out of court. And the doctor never lost his medical license.

One of Fortier’s former patients who is interviewed in “Baby God” is Cathy Holm. Her daughter Wendi Babst (born in 1966; Babst is her married surname), who was one of Fortier’s secret insemination children, is also interviewed in the documentary. Holm says that when she first saw Dr. Fortier as a patient, she was a 22-year-old wife in Las Vegas who longed to become a mother.

“All my friends were having babies right off the bat, but we didn’t have one,” remembers Holm. “It wasn’t easy to easy to get pregnant.” None of the fathers who were affected by Fortier’s crimes is interviewed in this documentary. “Baby God” director Olson says that many of these deceived fathers have either died, are under gag order due to settled lawsuits, or they simply weren’t available to be interviewed for the documentary.

Holm adds that even though there was a lot of society pressure on a young wife to become a mother, “It wasn’t just the pressure. I wanted kids. Nobody had any solutions until I went to Dr. Fortier … He was listed in the phone book as a fertility specialist.”

Babst was Holm’s first child. And over time, Holm says, she noticed that her daughter didn’t resemble Holm or Holm’s husband. She also says that her daughter was a lot smarter than the other children in her class at school. Something that’s mentioned repeatedly in the documentary is what people believe are the shared characteristics that Fortier’s biological children inherited from him. These character traits include above-average intelligence, piercing blue eyes and a tendency to be emotionally aloof.

In the documentary, director Olson uses an effective visual technique by showing a close-up montage of blue eyes of the children who are interviewed in the documentary, so viewers can see the ocular similarities. (Almost all of Fortier’s insemination children in the documentary have blue eyes.) And observant viewers will notice that several of the children have a nervous tick of scratching, usually their leg. It’s something that the directors “shows, not tells,” but it’s implied that this scratching habit is a characteristic that the children could also have inherited from Fortier.

“Baby God” includes footage of several of the children meeting each other, some for the first time. The other insemination children in the documentary include Brad Gulko, who has a doctorate in human evolutionary genomics, born in 1966; Mike Otis, born in 1949; Brent Leavitt, born in 1984; and Michael Cleaver, born in 1984.

Babst, who is a retired police detective, put her investigative skills to good use when she found out that Fortier was not only her biological father but also the biological father of numerous other people she never heard about or met before. In the documentary, she describes how she discovered this shocking fact after taking a DNA test that she got from Ancestry.com: “When I noticed that I had half-sibling matches, I knew something wasn’t right. The only name I kept seeing was Fortier.”

Babst was able to find several other half-siblings who were conceived in the same way that she was. By her own admission, she became obsessed with finding out how far Fortier’s crimes went. In one of the documentary’s unsettling scenes, Babst visits the abandoned Pioche Hospital where Fortier had his practice. At this hospital, she finds some of the birth record announcements of babies who were delivered by Fortier. It might never be known how many babies he delivered in his career were his biological children. But based on Babst’s reactions to finding these records, the thought has crossed her mind many times.

During Babst’s investigation, some of which is shown in the documentary, she uncovered a web of lies that went beyond what Fortier did. She also found out that several other people knew for years about the crimes that Fortier was committing, but they did nothing to stop him. These enabling or complicit actions explain why Fortier was able to get away with what he did for so many years.

Dr. Frank Silver and Dr. Harrison Sheld, two retired former employees of Dr. Fortier, are interviewed separately in the film. They say they’re not surprised that Dr. Fortier illegally impregnated so many women because they say that it’s common for male fertility doctors to have a mentality of secretly wanting to spread their genetic lineage to as many people as possible. Silver and Sheld say that they both donated sperm many times in the past, but never illegally inseminated anyone. Sheld begins chuckling when he discusses finding out about the numerous children he fathered through sperm donations.

Silver comments that at the time Fortier committed these crimes, no one had any idea that DNA testing would be invented. Although Sheld and Silver stop short of admitting that they helped cover up any of the doctor’s misdeeds, their attitude seems to be that if they did know about Dr. Fortier illegally inseminating patients, they probably weren’t going to report him because he was their boss. And these two former employees of Fortier don’t seem at all sympathetic to the victims who’ve been hurt by these widespread crimes.

However, one of the self-admitted enablers who’s interviewed in the film is Quincy Fortier Jr., who calls his father a “brilliant man … He understood the human body.” Fortier Jr. says in the documentary that his mother Ruth and the six children (four daughters and two sons) she raised with Fortier Sr. all knew for decades that Dr. Fortier was illegally inseminating his patients with his own sperm. Fortier Jr. says that his father explained it to them by saying that he was helping women conceive because these women were desperate to have children.

But the documentary includes information that not all of the female patients who were impregnated by Dr. Fortier wanted to have a child at the time they got pregnant. Shockingly, one of the patients who was impregnated against her knowledge and consent was Dr. Fortier’s own stepdaughter Connie, who was reportedly a virgin when she got pregnant through artificial insemination. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Dr. Fortier, who practiced other types of medicine even if he wasn’t technically licensed for it, insisted on having his children as his patients. Connie is not interviewed in the documentary, but the movie includes someone reading parts of a letter that Connie wrote years ago that directly addressed her stepfather’s crimes.

The result of that pregnancy was a son, born in 1965, who was adopted. His name is Jonathan Stensland, and he is also interviewed in the film. (As with all of the insemination children who are interviewed in “Baby God,” a DNA test proved that Fortier is their biological father.) In the documentary, Stensland remembers that he had a chance to meet Dr. Fortier and that the doctor was a master of avoiding topics if he didn’t want to discuss them.

“Conversations with Quincy, he doesn’t want to talk about anything that means anything,” remembers Stensland. “I can remember a feeling of mendacity. You try to listen to somebody who’s wiggling away.” Stensland also hints at a dark side to himself that he believes he could have inherited from Dr. Fortier when he thinks about what motivated the doctor to commit these crimes: “I think it was violence … I feel like the consciousness of the violence was born into me.”

“Baby God” also has an interview with Dorothy Otis, another one of Dr. Fortier’s patients who was impregnated by him when she didn’t want to get pregnant. At the time, she was living in Pioche (she now lives in Concord, California), and Dorothy says that she originally went to see Dr. Fortier about an infection. Otis’ son Mike was born as a result of this pregnancy. Just like Holm, Dorothy is a mother who didn’t find out until decades later that Dr. Fortier was the biological father of her child.

Dorothy comments that the man whom she thought was Mike’s father for all of these years was very abusive to her and Mike (her son Mike also confirms these abuse allegations), so she says she has mixed feelings about Dr. Fortier being the biological father: “I’m relieved, because I didn’t think much of what we thought was Mike’s father.” However, she says of insemination crimes committed by Fortier and other doctors: “I think it’s a terrible thing to do to people, but I wouldn’t have had Mike.”

When Dorothy found out that she was pregnant, even though she didn’t feel ready to have a child at that time in her life, Dr. Fortier convinced her that the pregnancy was a blessing. And in those days, Dorothy says doctors were trusted as much as priests. For many people, doctors are still held in such high regard that they can’t fathom the idea of a doctor committing morally reprehensible crimes. This type of blind trust meant that, especially before DNA testing existed, Dr. Fortier’s crimes went undiscovered for a long period of time.

Two of the people who still have this unwavering trust in Dr. Fortier are his adopted daughters Nannette Fortier and Sonia Fortier, whom he adopted in his 50s, after he and Ruth got divorced. Fortier Jr. says that Connie’s pregnancy was one of the main reasons for the divorce. Nannette and Sonia are both interviewed in the documentary.

Nannette didn’t allow her face to be shown in the film, although “Baby God” has archival TV news footage of Nannette accompanying Dr. Fortier to court in a rare situation where a lawsuit against him went to trial. (Before a verdict could be reached, that case was eventually settled out of court too.) Nannette also mentions something odd that can be considered “too much information” about Dr. Fortier: He circumcised himself.

Nannette and Sonia reportedly refuse to take DNA tests to find out if Dr. Fortier was their biological father. And there are other things that they deny in the film too. All they do is praise Dr. Fortier and say what a wonderful father he was to them. But there are hints (Sonia’s facial expressions and the sisters’ body language) that they know more than they’re willing to say in a documentary.

Nannette has this to say to try to excuse Dr. Fortier’s illegal insemination of his patients: “Using his own sperm, to him, was no different than using his own blood.” Sonia adds, “People were so desperate to have a child and wanted it so badly … In his mind, he meant no harm.”

But there was a lot of damage done, not the least of which is that there are unknown numbers of people whose reproductive rights were violated and who now unwillingly have Fortier’s genes in their family. Many of these people still do not know. And considering that Dr. Fortier illegally inseminated women in a relatively small geographic area, it’s very likely that many of these half-siblings have met each other without knowing that they share the same biological father. It isn’t publicly known if any of them unknowingly committed incest by getting romantically involved with someone they didn’t know was a sibling, or going even further by unknowingly marrying a sibling and unknowingly having children with a sibling.

In addition to the physical, genetic and biological repercussions, there’s the emotional devastation. The people who find out that Dr. Fortier’s crimes directly affect their families have feelings of anger and sadness over this cruel violation of their families. Children can feel confusion over their identity. Parents feel betrayed. And in some cases, as what happened with Babst, there are feelings of guilt when a child finds out and has to tell a parent that the father who raised the child isn’t the biological father.

And without revealing any spoilers, some more bombshell allegations are revealed toward the end of the film. These accusations have to do with incest and pedophilia. The person accused of committing these sex crimes was never arrested or sued for these crimes.

“Baby God” director Olson (who makes her feature-film directorial debut with this movie) has a knack for gripping storytelling by showing many examples in the film of how things are not what they first appear to be, which essentially can be a parallel metaphor for how Dr. Fortier conducted his life. In the documentary, the person who makes the allegations about incest and pedophilia seems to be one way in the beginning of the film, but when this person reveals these crimes, this person’s perspective is seen in a much different way.

Thankfully, the movie isn’t stuffed with people who weren’t directly affected by Dr. Fortier’s crimes, such as talking head “experts.” And given the sensitive nature of this documentary’s subject matter, “Baby God” doesn’t feel exploitative because Olson lets the children and their mothers give their candid perspectives without interference of pesky voiceovers or other sometimes-intrusive choices that documentary filmmakers make. While being respectful of the victims, the movie also doesn’t shy away from confronting the awful, complicated and damaging mess left behind by Dr. Fortier.

Although “Baby God” is mostly about how certain people were affected by the illegal actions of one doctor (and it’s chilling to think about how many more doctors have done the same things), this documentary speaks to much bigger problems of people being afraid to report crimes if they think someone powerful is committing those crimes. The movie is also a wake-up call about putting blind faith and complete trust in certain authority figures (such as doctors) who could decide the fates of certain people’s lives. And because the movie responsibly includes different viewpoints, it also shows that when people deny that the problem even exists, that denial is one of the biggest obstacles to getting justice.

HBO premiered “Baby God” on December 2, 2020.