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Hollywood Custody Battle Could Change California's Notion of Parenthood

Jason Patric - H 2013
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Jason Patric

A State Assembly committee this week will consider sperm-donor rights legislation drafted in response to Jason Patric's child custody battle with his ex-girlfriend after they conceived their son through in-vitro fertilization.

The California Assembly currently is weighing whether or not what started as a particularly nasty Hollywood custody battle will end up changing the state’s legal notion of parenthood.

The story begins with a quarrel between Jason Patric and his ex-girlfriend, Danielle Schreiber. When Schreiber sought to conceive a child through artificial insemination, the 47-year-old actor agreed to act as a sperm donor. Schreiber bore a son, Gus, and for at least a few of the boy’s early years, Patric was involved to varying degrees in his life.

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When Schreiber decided to sever all contact with her former boyfriend, the actor sued to gain parental rights. A court ruled that, under existing California law, he had no standing to bring such an action, since he and Schreiber had no legal contract granting him fatherhood status. In fact, Patric has admitted that he asked that he not be named as the father on Gus’ birth certificate, though he now says he did so to ensure the child’s privacy.

Under current California law, men who sell their sperm to commercial banks have no parental rights. Other donors are not legally considered “natural fathers” unless they sign a document with the prospective mother agreeing that the donor will have the rights of fatherhood. The law applies to both artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization.

At the urging of Patric’s attorney Fred Silberberg, State Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) introduced SB 115, which amends the law so that a judge would have the discretion to grant parental standing to a sperm donor who proves that he “receives the child into his home and openly holds out the child as his natural child." That standing would enable the donor to sue for custody, as Patric attempted to do.

"For me it's about parenting rights and what's in the best interest of the child," Hill told The Hollywood Reporter. "Really what we are doing is clarifying the law so children are not torn away from their parents." Said Silberberg: "The bill is intended to close a loophole that was not anticipated." 

Hill’s bill sailed through the senate and on Tuesday morning the legislation goes before the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.  If the committee approves the measure, it moves to full chamber for consideration, though the current legislative session has only weeks to go.

SB 115 has divided many of Sacramento’s traditional allies on family and child custody issues. For her part, Schreiber recently told Katie Couric that Patric never intended to be the boy’s father and produced a letter in which the actor wrote he did not want his name on the birth certificate and that he “wasn’t ready” to be a dad.

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Meanwhile, California’s chapter of the National Organization for Women has denounced the measure as oppressive to women. “The desire for the known sperm donor to have the additional rights of custody and joint decision making without the consent of the mother is nothing but (male) dominance personified," said NOW president, Patricia Bellasalma. "It is not lost on California NOW that SB 115 does not seek the same ownership or control of children for egg donors and/or surrogates," who are women.

Equality California, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights are backing the measure. According to John O’Connor, Equality California’s executive director, the proposal "will only apply in situations where the man who could be considered a sperm donor has lived with the child and has held himself out as the child's father. The other parent or parents would need to invite him into the child's life by allowing him to live with the child in order for this presumption of parentage to arise."

Constitutional lawyer Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s law school, supports passage of the bill because he regards it as “paramount” to safeguard the rights of “not only fathers, but also of children.” In a letter to the Assembly Committee, Chemerinsky wrote, “In this day and age, when so many children are born outside of wedlock, and where people often have to resort to assisted reproduction in order to have children, it is important that the law be written in a way to ensure that the parent-child relationship is not infringed upon because of a mere technicality in the law."