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Assisted Reproduction

Epic $800K Custody Battle Highlights Sperm-Donor Rights

This article highlights some of the current cases concerning sperm donor rights.


Photo by SCIEPRO/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Following a six-year, $800,000 custody battle between a U.K. lesbian couple and gay couple — who had arranged a casual sperm-donation deal to bring two daughters into the world — a High Court judge has ruled that the girls will remain living with their mothers. But with his decision came harsh words about the fallout of the foursome’s arrangement.

“The case illustrates all too clearly the immense difficulties which can be unleashed when families are created by known-donor fertilization,” warned Justice Stephen Cobb, according to the Telegraph. “Thoughtful and sophisticated people find themselves experiencing remarkable, unprecedented, emotional difficulty, with no easy way of out of it.” He added, “A very high psychological price can be paid, and I believe has been paid in this case, by all concerned.”

The court has protected the identities of the adults involved, as well as those of the girls — who are ages 10 and “early teens,” and who are the “biological children” of one of the mothers and one of the fathers. But the years spent in court, begun when the two men applied to have more contact with the girls, have “marred” the girls’ childhoods “irredeemably,” Cobb said. “Friends and collaborators in this wonderful endeavor of creating a family have become to some extent strangers, harboring strong feelings of mutual distrust and reciprocal aversion.”

It’s just the latest high-profile case involving alternative-family creation gone awry: This week, actor Jason Patric reportedly won his two-year battle to be declared the legal father of his 4-year-old son Gus. Patric had entered into an agreement with ex-lover Danielle Schreiber to donate sperm to her so that she could become a single mom through IVF. But being legally recognized as the child’s father now gives Patric the right to pursue custody and visitation rights — despite Schreiber’s claim that he offered to donate sperm after the two broke up “under the express condition” that “he would not be a father to or have any obligations, rights or responsibilities for my child.”

A well-publicized case in Kansas, meanwhile, has further highlighted legal issues for sperm donors. It concerns William Marotta, who answered a Craigslist ad placed by a lesbian couple seeking a sperm donor in 2009, and now, following the women’s breakup, is being pursued by the state to pay child support.

“We’re hearing more about these types of cases now because more people are becoming aware of alternate ways of creating families — and many are doing it without the consultation of medical or legal professionals, so problems arise,” Bill Singer, a New Jersey-based family law attorney specializing in family formation and protection for non-traditional families, tells Yahoo Parenting. Singer, who cofounded the American Academy of Assisted Reproductive Technology Attorneys, is also legal advisor for the recently formed Family by Design, a support and educational community for forming “parental partnerships.” That organization’s founder, Darren Spedale, has researched the topic of alternative-family formation, and says there’s been a shifting social landscape regarding family creation.

“Generation X and, even more so, Generation Y recognize that being good parents can come in many different forms and don’t see the traditional married family as the only option,” Spedale tells Yahoo Parenting. “There are other ways to have wonderful, healthy families.”

While the vast majority of these agreements do lead to happy families and leave relationships with donors unscathed — such as in a remarkable Brooklyn-based story, in which a woman and her friend were simultaneously pregnant with the sperm of the same man (said friend’s husband) — many aren’t so lucky. Experts in the field point to well-meaning, eager people who simply jump too quickly into their plan. Which raises the question: How can folks be so cavalier when it comes to baby making?

“The question can be asked in many situations where the heart reigns,” Corey Whelan, program director at Path 2 Parenthood(formerly the American Fertility Association), tells Yahoo Parenting. “Why do you marry the wrong person?” The valuable takeaway from cases like Patric’s, or those in the U.K. or Kansas, she stresses, is this: “Really make a decision about the relationship you want with your donor. If you want the donor in your life, then really look at every thread that could come out of that over the years.”

She notes possibilities ranging from divorce and friendship fallout to your future child’s unpredictable but strong desire for your out-of-the-picture donor to be her daddy. “Anything that can happen will happen,” Whelan warns. “Because at the end of the day, people are not predictable, and neither are emotions — let alone other people’s emotions.” Bottom line, she advises: Get a lawyer. And if you’re very concerned about possible negative outcomes when it comes to known donors, of either sperm or eggs, then go with anonymity. “The only way to eliminate risk is to go the anonymous route,” she says.

People choose to go with known donors for myriad reasons, notes Singer. “Some are more comfortable knowing who is providing the gametes — either a sister or brother or friend — and knowing the medical history,” he says. Others may want to co-parent with the donor, or at least have him or her involved in some sort of limited but meaningful way. It’s this gray area, Spedale says, that seems to lead to the most problems down the road.

But he’s learned through his research three lessons that seem to make any agreement more prone to harmony: get to know the other person (donor) well before going down the road of pregnancy; talk through all the details of how everyone involved envisions the co-parenting plan; and finally, be prepared for everything to change once the baby is born. “Hopefully,” he says, “you’ve built a flexible, meaningful enough relationship for it to withstand the change.”


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