Sperm donor or dad? California lawmakers consider the question

06/29/2013 12:00 AM

08/16/2013 11:04 AM

Until recently, the custody battle over 3-year-old Gus was playing out only in a Los Angeles courtroom and on the pages of celebrity gossip magazines.

Now the fight has moved to the state Capitol, where "Lost Boys" actor Jason Patric is trying to change state law to allow sperm donors, in certain situations, to become legal parents and share custody of the children that result from their seed.

Patric's former girlfriend, massage therapist Danielle Schreiber, is fighting the bill, arguing that the law protects her as the child's only legal parent because she never married Patric and used a medical procedure to conceive.

Both sides have hired a slew of Sacramento lobbyists who are arguing over how a bill inspired by a tumultuous Hollywood romance will affect other California families that rely on sperm donors to create children.

The fight reflects the modern state of child-rearing, where many heterosexual couples never marry, some lesbian couples conceive with sperm donated by a male friend, and relationships – gay and straight – frequently dissolve after children are born.

Proponents of Senate Bill 115 say it will close a legal loophole that forbids certain sperm donors from being recognized as fathers when an unmarried woman is impregnated with their sperm.

The other side says the proposal could grant parenting rights to sperm donors against the wishes of a child's legal parents. They say the bill is an attempt by Patric to overturn a court ruling that he lost.

"This bill should never be heard by the Legislature," said Richard Harris, a lobbyist representing Schreiber and her family.

"You don't use the Legislature to interfere in a court case just because you're some Hollywood schmo."

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, said the custody fight of a Hollywood couple has raised the profile of his bill, but that it addresses a broader issue.

"All that case did is highlight that there is a problem that the court defined," Hill said.

He said he's carrying the bill because the judge's ruling pointed out confusion resulting from a bill Hill carried two years ago.

That bill, AB 1349, sought to give lesbian parents more rights, making it more difficult for sperm donors to claim they are parents.

The courts interpreted that law to mean that Patric should be treated as a sperm donor, not a parent, and gave full custody to the mother.

SB 115 would allow a man whose donated semen impregnates an unmarried woman to petition the courts for parenting rights by proving his devotion to the child.

"The issue isn't whether Jason Patric gets custody. The issue is that you have the right to at least get that consideration," said Paula Treat, a lobbyist who has been retained by Patric's custody lawyer.

"He wasn't in love with the boy's mother, but he's in love with the little boy."

Schreiber and Patric were a couple on and off for roughly 10 years, but their representatives gave different descriptions of the relationship at the time she conceived.

Harris, Schreiber's lobbyist, said they were broken up and that Schreiber became pregnant with the intention of being a single mother. Treat, Patric's lobbyist, said they were a couple who sought fertility treatment and planned to both be parents.

Both sides agree that the pair dated for some time after the baby was born but before their relationship dissolved. Harris said Schreiber dated Patric knowing that the law would view her as the sole parent.

Hill introduced SB 115 in March, after Patric lost the custody dispute. The bill sailed through the Senate without a single vote of opposition but is stirring up heated controversy now that it is in the Assembly.

In the past week, it has become much bigger than a custody fight between celebrities, attracting opinions from respected legal scholars around the state and pitting gay rights advocates against each other.

Equality California and the National Center for Lesbian Rights support the bill, while gay rights champion Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, is opposed.

The Legislature should not interrupt an issue that is under review in the courts, Ammiano wrote in a three-page letter to fellow Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

"To do otherwise would be an open invitation to any other family law litigants who lose their cases at the trial level but are rich enough to hire lobbyists and PR firms, to appeal their case directly to the Legislature and circumvent the judicial process," Ammiano wrote.

He also raised questions about how SB 115 would interact with another bill now making its way through the Legislature, SB 274, which would allow children to have more than two legal parents.

Wieckowski's committee was originally scheduled to hear the bill on Tuesday but delayed the hearing until August after Ammiano wrote the letter.

The National Organization for Women also weighed in against the bill this week, writing that it strips rights "from women who seek to form family units without men."

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.

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