Blurring the Line Between Sperm Donor and Father

We were fascinated by the article in the New York Times this past weekend about the custody battle between actor Jason Patric and his massage therapist ex (and not just because the notoriously publicity-shy Patric talkied to Katie Couric on national television to get his side of the dispute out there).

Here’s the story, in a nutshell: Patric and Danielle Schreiber dated on and off for a decade, and during that time they talked about starting a family via I.V.F. (he had a surgical procedure to help things along). Then they broke up, but remained friends, and when Schreiber decided she still wanted a kid, Patric offered his sperm. You know, as gentlemen do. Then, duh, like some romantic comedy starring one of the Jennifers (Aniston/Lopez/Garner), they fell back in love once the kid showed up.

So Patric became Dada, yadda yadda. And then — of course — they broke up again. Except now Patric’s “sperm donation” is a four-year-old boy, and Patric considers this boy his son. And he wants shared custody — but she wants a restraining order. In other words, now it’s neither romantic nor comedic.

We do not envy the judge and jury who have to make a call in this case. Based on the information we have in this case, the line between sperm donor and father seems truly blurred. They are both right, and they are both wrong. And then there’s the kid, who is just a four-year-old boy and too young to understand the difference between giving a friend your sperm and giving an on-off lover your sperm. Actually, we’re in our forties and we’re struggling to make sense of it. Clearly the law needs to be clearer on the topic of turkey-based sperm. And, even more clearly, fully grown adults should think twice before donating sperm to, or accepting sperm from, someone with whom their relationship could be described as “complicated.” (Ah, remember early days Facebook?!)

What do you think? Once a sperm donor, always a sperm donor? Or can someone accrue parental rights by maturing from a sperm donor into a Dada?



  1. As a father, my perspective would be that when he started “fathering” his son and being a part of the family, he became a “father”. It would be more complicated if there was a stepfather in the picture, and less complicated if they had signed some kind of legal document establishing paternity rights.

    Viscerally, it feels really wrong to me to exclude the father in this case.

    J’s comment above also hits the nail on the head. The child’s interests come first. That’s the definition of parenting. Sadly, many parents aren’t willing to shield their children from their own anger and lust for revenge.

  2. Interesting indeed. Well, since it’s going up on appeal, at least we’ll get a written opinion.

  3. Eh, I think he’s got the better argument. I don’t think the fact of sperm donation trumps the provisions regarding presumed paternity. I imagine that provision was drafted to prevent sperm donors from popping up out of the blue to claim paternity rights (or women who conceived using donated sperm from going after the donor for child support), not to prevent a sperm donor who also had a parental relationship with the child from having parental rights. Otherwise, you could argue that a man who conceived a child using in vitro with his nonmarital partner has no parental rights because he’s a sperm donor. That’s nuts. I’ll have to look into it more.

  4. Nikki, yeah, that’s exactly what he’s trying to prove (with handwritten cards from the boy calling him Dada, etc – it’s all pretty sad). Meanwhile, she’s saying that the California law which says that donated sperm does NOT equal fatherhood should come into play here, and that he was a sperm donor from the start.

  5. Hmm. In California I think he would be covered. One of the criteria for establishing paternity is if the alleged father accepted the child into his home and openly held the child out as his own. When I was a student observing I saw some men establish a presumption of paternity this way. (Ex: he started dating the mom while she was pregnant with another man’a child, but stepped into the role of father). But I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know for sure.

  6. I think the important thing here is, the kid needs a dad and his biological father wants to fill that role. The best interest of the child comes first. It’s not as if the parents are strangers to each other. They need to put their petty shit aside and act like adults, like parents who care more about their child than getting their way.

  7. This seems a little complicated off the bat, but I found that I have a pretty clear opinion. If it was mutually stated that he was nothing more than a sperm donor at the time of conception, then he should be required to go through the adoption process if he wants parental rights. It would be the same for any other man dating a single mother who wanted to be the legal father of the child. If they break up, it’s sad to lose the relationship with the child, but people go through the same thing all the time – DNA is kind of irrelevant.

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