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Continued: Just a sperm donor, or the legal dad?

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 6, 2013 - 8:13 AM

A sperm donor who answered an online ad never intended to be a dad, but now the state of Kansas is suing to make him one -- or at least make him pay child support for the child born to a lesbian couple.

Far-fetched? It could easily happen in Minnesota, which has similar laws regarding parentage and artificial insemination.

Now, a Twin Cities attorney is lobbying state legislators to change the law, which, he says, has failed to keep up with the changing nature of families and fertility science. Minnesota's current law, he says, unfairly punishes single women and gay couples trying to start families and the donors who help them.

"This can happen here, and it shouldn't be able to happen," said Steven Snyder, a Maple Grove attorney who leads the American Bar Association's national work group on assisted reproduction. "Everyone gets that it's not fair."

Like Kansas, Minnesota requires that a doctor oversee a sperm donation if the donor wants to be considered free of parental responsibilities. That's true even though physicians aren't always needed in a world with $29.95 home insemination kits.

That requirement is the crux of the case in Kansas, where William Marotta answered an online ad in 2009 and donated sperm to Angela Bauer and Jennifer Schreiner without a doctor's involvement. When the couple split up, Schreiner sought state welfare benefits for her child. The state argued that Marotta was still the legal father and should pay for about $6,000 of the benefits, as well as child support.

Legal analysts generally agree that Kansas is following the law -- but that it is based on 40-year-old assumptions about parenting that were made before artificial insemination became commonplace.

The Kansas case made national news last week, but the headlines could have surfaced in Minnesota a decade ago, when Mikki Morrissette moved to the state and conceived a child with the help of donor sperm and a home insemination kit.

Starting her own business, Morrissette didn't have much money and applied in Hennepin County for the state's Medical Assistance health care benefits for her child.

County human services officials then demanded to know the identity of the sperm donor and insisted that he still had parental and financial responsibilities. Rather than press the case -- and force her friend and donor in New York to pay child support -- Morrissette dropped her application for benefits.

The fight was embarrassing for Morrissette, who had started the ChoiceMoms.org website and positioned herself as an expert to single women on how to have children on their own.

"My choice was to let them pursue that [child support] or drop it," she said. "So I dropped it." That left her child uninsured for a while.

Snyder argues that Minnesota's statute has become obsolete in several ways. In addition to requiring a doctor's oversight for a sperm donor to be absolved of parental responsibilities, the sperm must be donated to a married woman with the consent of the husband and wife.

Some women try to skirt the law by using anonymous donors. But Snyder said that doesn't address the legal question and could leave donors culpable if their identities were ever discovered.

"There's a huge risk down the road if anonymity starts to erode," he said.

The sure way for lesbian couples to get around that provision in Minnesota is to go through a formal adoption process in which donors relinquish parental rights. Adoptions, however, can cost thousands in legal fees.

"We're forcing lesbian partners or single women to spend $2,500 for an adoption," Snyder said, "whereas a married couple spends no money."

Cost is what drives many couples to seek sperm donations without using a doctor in the first place. Artificial insemination isn't a sure thing, and multiple trips to a fertility clinic can get expensive. So home kits and direct sperm donations are increasingly popular.

"Some women don't want to put their feet up in stirrups" for insemination in a clinic, Morrissette said.

"Not that self-insemination is a romantic vision either, but it's cheaper."

'Is our family secure?'

For Anna and Abigail Richey-Allen, the prospect of a sperm donor sued over parenting rights ended Friday, when they completed a second-parent adoption at the Dakota County Courthouse in Hastings. Anna was already a legal parent as the birth mother of their 3-week-old daughter, Tabitha. Now Abigail is a legal parent as well, and the sperm donor's rights are terminated.

The couple pursued the adoption in part so they can both legally travel alone with their daughter. Both work in foreign service for the State Department, and they were in Juarez, Mexico, before they returned to Anna's home state for the delivery and adoption.

Even with the adoption complete, the same-sex couple worry about some legal loophole that could emerge to challenge it.

"We still feel like, 'Is that it?'" Anna said. "'Is our family secure now?'"

Adoption isn't a great solution for single parents, Morrissette said, because judges frown on cases that don't involve a second parent seeking legal rights.

She hopes the sperm donor in Kansas wins his case and that Minnesota changes its laws soon. If parents placing children for adoption don't pay child support, sperm donors shouldn't either, she said.

"This is not at all what their role is intended to be," she said.

Snyder said that he was already planning to work this session on changes in Minnesota law, but that the national attention to the Kansas case might help persuade some lawmakers.

Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, said he expects to include the changes in a bill along with other changes to parenting laws recommended by the state chapter of the Bar Association. Opponents might raise "lifestyle" objections, but he considers those irrelevant because artificial insemination and sperm donation are commonplace.

"It's not a question of sanctioning a certain type of behavior or transaction," he said. "These transactions and behaviors already happen and are already legal. It's modernizing the rules we do have."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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