“Does ‘Sperm Donor’ Mean ‘Dad’?
By BROOKS BARNES– NEW YORK TIMES
MAY 2, 2014
LOS ANGELES — He is a movie star who shot to fame on a motorcycle in “The Lost Boys.” She is a California massage therapist from a prominent East Coast family. Four years ago, with his sperm, her eggs and the wonder of in vitro fertilization, they produced a child.
From there, the tale gets very, very messy.
For the last two years, Jason Patric and Danielle Schreiber have been waging what has become one of the highest-profile custody fights in the country — one that scrambles a gender stereotype, raises the question of who should be considered a legal parent and challenges state laws that try to bring order to the Wild West of nonanonymous sperm donations.
Played out on cable news, dueling “Today” show appearances, YouTube videos and radio call-in talk shows, this rancorous dispute, which heads back into a California courtroom next Thursday, serves as cautionary tale for any man considering donating sperm to a friend and any woman considering accepting it from one, experts say.
“The resonance here is enormous because of the increasing number of families being formed today outside of traditional marriage,” said Naomi R. Cahn, a family law professor at George Washington University and the author of “Test Tube Families.” “Single heterosexual women, lesbian couples, men who donate sperm expecting to be part of a child’s life — they had better be paying attention.”
Is this a case about a desperate dad who is being maliciously prevented from seeing his son, as Mr. Patric insists? Or is it about a woman’s right to choose to be a single mother and have that choice protected from interference, as Ms. Schreiber’s lawyers assert? Is it both?
And exactly how did these two end up as the public faces of a complicated debate that exposes America’s increasingly fuzzy definition of what constitutes a family?
Mr. Patric, 47, the grandson of Jackie Gleason and the son of the playwright Jason Miller, was once one of Hollywood’s hottest rising stars. His brooding good looks helped land him coveted roles in films like “After Dark, My Sweet” and “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” as well as romantic partners like Robin Wright, Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts, who famously jetted off to Ireland with him a few days after breaking off her engagement to Kiefer Sutherland, a friend of them both.
His film career cooled in part because he started to demand higher-quality scripts and turned down parts in big commercial movies. (He also developed a taboo-breaking habit of publicly criticizing the Hollywood machine, producers say.) His last movie, “The Outsider,” had a brief theatrical release before going straight to DVD; his two films before that took in less than $30,000 combined at the United States box office. But a Broadway appearance in 2011, in a revival of his father’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “That Championship Season” (performing along with, coincidentally, Mr. Sutherland), was a reminder to many of his formidable acting talent.
Ms. Schreiber, 41, is the daughter of James Schreiber, a well-known Greenwich, Conn., lawyer and investor, and a sister of Zachary Schreiber, the chief executive of PointState Capital, a $5 billion hedge fund. Ms. Schreiber, an American civilization graduate of Brown University who runs a Rolfing massage practice in Los Angeles, met Mr. Patric in 2002 when he went to her as a massage client and the two became a couple, dating off and on for a decade.
She had long wanted to be a mother, according to a family member. But pregnancy attempts with Mr. Patric did not go well. “I even had a surgery to increase our chances,” he said in an interview last week.
They decided in 2009 (at a time when they were not romantically involved but still friendly) to pursue artificial insemination. Ms. Schreiber, who declined an interview request for this article, was keenly familiar with fertility options: Her mother, Linda, had becomea bit of a celebrity in her own right in the 1970s after a regimen of the pregnancy drug Pergonal resulted in quadruplets. (Ms. Schreiber is one of them.)
Along came Gus, named after Ms. Schreiber’s paternal grandfather. The boy’s middle name is Theodore, a nod to Mr. Patric’s family heritage.
The baby eventually helped rekindle a romance between Ms. Schreiber and Mr. Patric, although they never formally moved in together. For the next two years, Mr. Patric said that he played a parental role (“I took him to get circumcised when he was 8 days old”) and that Gus, now 4, referred to him as “Dada” in videos and messages. “Thank you for teaching me to pee in the toilet, watch airplanes, learn Beatles songs. I love you Dada, Gus,” read a card that was written by Ms. Schreiber, given to Mr. Patric and later presented as evidence in court. (A lawyer for Ms. Schreiber contended that Mr. Patric did not attend the circumcision, but did provide a ride because she could not drive after a cesarean section.)
Then, in June 2012, the couple broke up for good. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Patric filed a paternity suit for shared custody. According to both sides, there was legal mediation, during which time Gus continued to see Mr. Patric.
But then, according to court filings, Ms. Schreiber abruptly started to withhold visits. Ms. Schreiber’s lawyer, Fred Heather, said his client saw Mr. Patric as increasingly threatening and hostile. “She was fearful for herself as well as for Gus,” Mr. Heather said — allegations that Ms. Schreiber made in her court case. (She filed for a restraining order, which was granted and is still in effect.) Mr. Patric vigorously disputed that claim, maintaining that Ms. Schreiber’s shift was a legal maneuver, a result of stumbling across a loophole in state sperm-donor laws.
California, like many states, according to Professor Cahn, has conflicting statutes. One provides that any man can establish parentage if he “receives the child into his home and openly holds the child out as his natural child.” But another statute holds that a man who provides his sperm to a doctor for the purpose of inseminating an unmarried friend is “treated as if he were not the natural father” — unless there is a specific written agreement ahead of conception.
Mr. Patric and Ms. Schreiber had no such agreement. And her lawyers say there was nothing cavalier or last minute about it: “Danielle knew about the law before she chose to proceed with a known sperm donation,” Mr. Heather said. “She made a carefully considered judgment.”
Mr. Patric took her to court, holding up “intended parent” forms he signed at the sperm-donor clinic. Ms. Schreiber stood her ground, noting that Mr. Patric had asked that his name not be on the birth certificate. (“It would have thrust Gus into the limelight, and I wanted to protect him,” Mr. Patric said.) As for Gus calling Mr. Patric “Dada,” her lawyers say it doesn’t matter: Ms. Schreiber never intended to keep Mr. Patric’s identity a secret from Gus, but she did intend to prevent Mr. Patric from having any parental rights. (“The lies are stunning,” Mr. Patric said.)
Ms. Schreiber won. A Los Angeles appellate court is scheduled to begin hearing Mr. Patric’s appeal next week.
“The trial court erred in several regards,” said Fred Silberberg, Mr. Patric’s lawyer. “There is a substant
ial amount of evidence where she indicated him to be the father. She shouldn’t be able to say, ‘Oh, wait, that no longer counts.’ ”
In part because sperm donation is such a secretive trade, there are no reliable statistics on how many men donate to people they know. But anonymous donors represent the vast majority of the more than 30,000 estimated births that result from donated sperm each year. California Cryobank, the nation’s largest sperm bank, said it administers less than 10 samples a month out of more than 2,000 total where the father is known.
But more men and women are choosing a nonanonymous route, experts say, prompted by societal shifts and concerns about the health histories of anonymous donors.
Donation laws, some passed before the widespread use of in vitro fertilization, have increasingly drawn scrutiny. In January, because of a twist in the law, a Kansas man who donated sperm to a lesbian couple he met on Craigslist was ordered to pay child support even though he signed documents waiving parental rights.
California lawmakers last summer considered legislation that was positioned as an attempt to clarify that state’s donor laws. (That bill was ultimately put on ice pending Mr. Patric’s appeal.) A separate bill is now working its way through the California Legislature; it would put into effect standardized donor forms “to reduce subsequent legal confusion involving donors and parents.”
But Mr. Patric maintains that his case as a matter of moral principle has nothing to do with sperm donation. Rather, he sees the case as a matter of “parental alienation,” or when one parent refuses to allow the other to see the child. “This is child abuse,” he said. “When a parent is shut out, the only information is a skewed, perverted narrative — that mommy or daddy doesn’t love you.”
He added: “It’s so emasculating, so totally devastating. He lives 10 minutes away from me, and I haven’t been able to see him in 63 weeks. Do you know how heart wrenching that is?”
Last October, Mr. Patric created Stand Up for Gus, a foundation that has raised more than $200,000, according to a spokeswoman, Mia Rose Wong. Ms. Wong said the money will be funneled to law offices willing to provide pro bono services to low-income clients in similar family-law situations. On April 25, Mr. Patric announced a $100,000 pledge to Levitt Quinn Family Law Center in Los Angeles.
Celebrity supporters have included Mel Gibson, Jon Hamm, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Chelsea Handler, Mr. Sutherland, Nikki Reed, Chris Noth, Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock and Mark Wahlberg.
Ms. Schreiber has tried to block Mr. Patric from using their son’s name on Twitter, Facebook and at fund-raising events in relation to Stand Up for Gus. She has been losing that fight. Last week, a Los Angeles judge denied a restraining order request on the ground that it would violate the actor’s First Amendment rights. (Her lawyer, Mr. Heather, said she does not plan to drop this element of the fight, perhaps pursuing a deceptive fund-raising case.)
Throughout his career, Mr. Patric has been a reluctant celebrity, courting the spotlight only as a publicity tool for his films. So why has he gone so public in this instance, appearing on talk shows like “Katie” and news programs like “20/20” to publicize parental alienation?
“I want to leave a huge trail so Gus will someday know how hard I fought for him,” he said.
But what will Gus someday think of Mr. Patric’s decision to speak abr”asively about Ms. Schreiber? “I don’t say negative things about her,” Mr. Patric said. “I’m not in a public spat with her.” “
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