Case Challenges Child Support Rules for Sperm Donors

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A Pennsylvania lawsuit could challenge the legal principles normally applied to sperm donors. In the case, a sperm donor is being sued for child support, even though there was a verbal contract exempting the man from responsibility for support.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, we'll find out just who are the "Lords of Dogtown." And where is Dogtown, anyway?

First, sperm news. In Pennsylvania, the state's highest court is considering whether a sperm donor can be forced to pay child support, even if the mother has already agreed that the donor won't have to. This case may reset the balance the rights of sperm donors and the best interest of their children, and not just in Pennsylvania. NPR's Madeleine Brand reports.


In the early '90s, Joel McKiernan and Ivonne Ferguson were on-again, off-again lovers. She wanted to have another baby--she already had two--but had had her tubes tied. The only way to get pregnant was through in vitro fertilization. So she asked Joel if he would be the sperm donor. He initially said no, but she was persuasive, so one day he went to a fertility clinic and, as they say, made a deposit.

Mr. JOHN PURCELL (McKiernan's Lawyer): He went there one day and gave a sample in a cup and left, and the rest is history.

BRAND: That's Joel's lawyer, John Purcell. Purcell paints a picture of Ivonne as a scheming woman who manipulated his client.

Mr. PURCELL: She promised that he would be considered just like an anonymous sperm donor was to a sperm bank. He would be considered the same way. He'd have no responsibilities. She'd raise the child on her own, and she eventually convinced him to do it. He said, `Fine.' They were good friends.

BRAND: Ivonne got pregnant on Valentine's Day 1994, 11 years ago, with twins. Joel attended the birth, saw the babies for several months after that and then moved on. He got married, eventually had two children with his wife. And then, when Ivonne's kids were five years old, she resurfaced and asked Joel for financial support. Here's her lawyer, Elizabeth Hoffman.

Ms. ELIZABETH HOFFMAN (Ferguson's Lawyer): She came on hard times. She was able to support the children, but she required some state assistance for day care. She continued to keep her job, but she was having some difficulty supporting her children.

BRAND: And she says her client never agreed that Joel would be off the hook financially. The case went to a lower court and, while the court found Joel's case sympathetic and described Ivonne's actions as despicable, it nevertheless ordered Joel to pay around $1,500 a month in child support. The court found that the children's interests were the most important. `No other party,' the court said, `can bargain away a child's support rights.' An appeals court agreed, and now the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering the arguments, one of which, says Joel's lawyer, John Purcell, is that the state should not have to ensure that every child is supported by two parents.

Mr. PURCELL: There's a lot of situations where there are no parents; for instance, single-parent adoptions. They don't go out and make sure that there's a father paying support. People whose fathers die--is it the state's responsibility to go out and make sure that these children have two parents who are paying support?

BRAND: The problem is that Pennsylvania does not have a law that specifically outlines a sperm or egg donor's rights or responsibilities. Only 19 states have some laws. Susan Crockin is a Massachusetts lawyer who specializes in, and writes extensively about, fertility issues. She says those 19 states have relied on something called the Uniform Parentage Act, which is a model fertility experts have created that state legislatures are free to enact.

Ms. SUSAN CROCKIN (Lawyer): The UPA is very interesting. What it says is that a donor is a donor, and you can be a donor for a single woman, a married woman or someone in a non-traditional relationship. And unless the man and the woman sign on saying they intend to be a parent, then you're not a parent. So it flips the presumption. It presumes that single parenthood is perfectly acceptable.

BRAND: In Pennsylvania, which doesn't have the Uniform Parentage Act, Joel's lawyer admits he's fighting an uphill battle when it comes to arguing that single parenthood is OK. And so he came up with another argument he hopes will be more persuasive: that a ruling against his client will dissuade men from donating to sperm banks across the country. `What's to stop judges from going after anonymous sperm donors,' he argues, `if they think that is in the best interest of the child?' Well, nothing really.

Mr. ART KAPLAN (Bioethicist, University of Pennsylvania): I wouldn't trust any clinic that said to me, `We can absolutely guarantee your anonymity.' I wouldn't trust any clinic that would say, `You'll never have to meet any children that result.'

BRAND: That's University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Art Kaplan. He says because open adoptions are becoming more popular and science is discovering genetic links to disease, children are demanding to know their biological history. And ethically, that knowledge trumps a donor's anonymity, says Kaplan, something that fertility clinics in Europe are already addressing.

Mr. KAPLAN: In Sweden, anonymity has already been removed from egg and sperm donation. England is moving that way, and I think they'll have it done probably in a year or two. France has already moved in that direction. And I think it's easy to predict that we're going to see that happen here.

BRAND: What Joel, the sperm donor in Pennsylvania, may learn is that no private contract, oral or written, could have protected him. And so, if the highest court upholds the two lower courts, this case will have ended up like any other paternity case where the children are created the old-fashioned way, and Joel will be responsible for his sperm donation until the 11-year-old twins become adults. Madeleine Brand, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY continues just ahead. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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