Sperm donation raises more questions

Maggie Gallagher

12/11/2001 12:00:00 AM - Maggie Gallagher
"That b---h is ruining my life," the Hollywood power broker said. No, it is not the title of some new reality-TV pilot. It is just the funny little valentine (according to the London Sun) that zillionaire Steven Bing sent the gorgeous Elizabeth Hurley, who is about to become the mother of his utterly unwanted, unsought-for child. He is outraged.

Cut to Sweden, a continent away, where another outraged man is appalled to discover that the court says he, too, is a father and is obliged to shell out $265 a month for a baby he never wanted. The difference? Steven Bing had sex with Elizabeth Hurley. The nameless Swede gave sperm to a lesbian friend. She and her partner promised him he could sire a baby without incurring any obligation to father. Sounded good to him. Now, 10 years later, he owes child support on the well-established legal principle that one parent cannot contract away the other parent's obligation to their mutual child.

Who shall we feel most sorry for here? On the one hand, the promises made to our Swedish sperm donor were explicit. He was seduced into believing that it would be positively noble for him to ejaculate into a little cup so these women could have an alternative family form. This no doubt represents a certain failure of imagination all the way around.

On the other hand, the sexual revolution promised the Steven Bings of the world sex without obligations. Birth control is the first line of defense, with abortion as the mop-up operation when women's bodies do something so gauche and uncalled for as to conceive babies without male permission. (Hurley, of course, ought to have done better by her baby than saddle him or her with such a father. But her failure does not excuse his.)

Here is the larger point: New laws to allow same-sex partners to reproduce as the adults wish (rather than as the children would perhaps wish for) will not affect only gays and lesbians. We must deform accepted principles of family law to accommodate these adult desires, in a way that has far-reaching consequences, not only for the children whom gays and lesbians parent.

How do we embrace the idea that same-sex advocates want us to -- that it is the people who contract for the baby, not the people who make the baby, that are the real parents -- while holding the Steven Bings of the world slaves to brute biology? Why is he responsible? Especially given that most Steven Bings are not rich, cruel playboys, but regular guys with limited incomes for whom $265 a month may represent a real and important economic sacrifice? How can we hound low-income males as deadbeat dads and give sperm donors for lesbians a pass?

Just a thought the California legislature might mull over as it considers a radical new proposal to give all the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples: Not only is the bill a gross rejection of voters (who just last year voted to make the legal requirement that marriage takes place between a man and a woman an explicit), it is the final rejection of the idea that marriage and its legal benefits are rooted in the natural family -- in the idea that the people who make the baby should love and care for it and each other.

Meanwhile, other state legislatures should reconsider the law governing sperm donations. If we would put the well-being of children at the heart of family law (rather than the sexual desires of adults), we would view sperm donation as a form of prenatal adoption for married couples. When a husband is willing to take responsibility to father this child, the law should accommodate this desire. But where the intention is to leave the child radically fatherless, state law should not strip a child of his or her natural father. Instead the basic rule, that the people who make the baby are legally responsible for it, should still apply.