Who’s Your Daddy?

Perhaps you, like me, sometimes find yourself wondering, “What ever happened to that delightful actor Jason Patric, star of the beloved 1987 film The Lost Boys?” I have a partial answer to that question. He is a biological father who is fighting to become a legal father to a child he shares with an ex-girlfriend. The story is more interesting than it might initially seem because of the way that Patric’s child was conceived.

The child in the middle of this custody dispute is named Gus and his mother, Danielle Schreiber, is Patric’s ex-girlfriend. According to published reports, Patric and Schreiber were not in a relationship when Gus was conceived or born. Patric donated his sperm to Schreiber, in the same way that thousands of men donate or sell sperm each year for infertility treatments for women to whom they have no connection. Schreiber conceived in a doctor’s office. If the two were a married couple and the pregnancy resulted from fertility treatment using the husband’s sperm, there would be no problem with Patric’s claim that he is both a genetic and legal father. But that was not the case here, and their accounts of their post-birth expectations are, unsurprisingly, very different.

Patric claims that he was going to be a father, not a donor, to any child born to Schreiber using his sperm. Schreiber asserts that Patric understood that he was simply a sperm donor. Whatever the terms of their initial understanding, and there is no written agreement to help clear up the dispute, Patric argues that he acted as a father figure to Gus for the first few years of his life until he and Schreiber had a falling out and she excised him from the child’s life. Schreiber was able to successfully fend off Patric’s quest for visitation because the law in California, fashioned after the Uniform Parentage Act, declares that a man who provides his sperm to a physician to be used for assisted conception for a woman not his wife is not the natural father of a child produced from his sperm. The protection from parental responsibility for men who sell sperm is critical, but this protection has left Patric unable to continue the relationship that he claims to have started with his son.

For those who have concerns about how assisted reproduction changes the landscape of traditional family life, Patric’s dilemma is another example of a world of baby making run amok. But the messiness of this case is in keeping with lots of ways in which families have become more diffuse and less rigid as fewer people marry before conceiving, more people opt to become single parents, and married couples fracture and re-marry other partners. So it’s not so much that assisted reproduction is messy as it is that family is complicated and does not always squeeze itself into traditional boxes.

In response to Patric’s case, State Senator Jerry Hill introduced a bill in the California Senate which would have allowed men like Patric, sperm donors who forge a relationship with their genetic children, to seek legal parentage of those children. That bill ultimately did not become law in part because of opposition from a number of groups who worried about its impact on single women and lesbian couples, among others.

In past articles, I have expressed reservations about how different ways of regulating assisted conception could negatively impact some families (see here, here, and here). Parentage is a critical part of the landscape of assisted reproduction. People must educate themselves about the laws in their jurisdictions so that they understand the circumstances under which parentage follows the use of assisted reproduction (which would protect a sperm donor from being on the hook for child support as happened to one Kansas man). Where states do not have clear laws, they should create them and, in doing so, be mindful of how a law meant to protect someone like Patric might hurt other families, such as those headed by same sex couples, which also deserve legal protection and respect. For instance, new parentage rules might drive some couples away from using a known donor if they fear that such a person might have a right to demand visitation or even custody at some later point in the child’s life. Lawmakers should consider both negative and positive repercussions of creating parental rights and responsibilities where they currently do not exist.

It may seem axiomatic that a child is best served by having relationships with both of her genetic progenitors, but reality belies this seeming truth. Not every person whose genes get passed to a child is a useful influence in that child’s life. The question is not simply one of genes, for we know that genetic connection does not always and need not always lead to real world obligation or love. Rather, we are called to create a system of laws that respects genetics without being mindlessly bound to genetic tie. Perhaps we don’t yet know what that system looks like and the path toward it is not smooth, but I think that the journey will be worthwhile for parents and children.

 

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