This morning, a California court ruled that Jason Patric is a legal parent to Gus Schreiber, the four-year-old conceived with his sperm. Patric's custody lawsuit has become one of the most vicious and divisive tabloid stories in the last two years. Custody cases are rarely simple, but the allegations made in this case are particularly vitriolic and perplexing. But, behind the monstrous accusations and celebrity media campaigns, Patric's suit brings light to a legal issue we all should be concerned about: When does a sperm donor become a dad?
In 2008, Patric agreed to donate sperm to his ex-girlfriend, Danielle Schreiber, under the conditions that she not expect child support or tell anyone he was the child's biological father. "I don't know if I'll ever be a dad," he wrote in a letter to Schreiber. "I want you to know that if you want to use my sperm, you have my blessing. It's all I can give you right now." Schreiber's son, Gus, was born in December 2009. Patric didn't put his name on the birth certificate, and though he saw the baby occasionally, his stance on fatherhood remained the same. Schreiber also respected the deal they had, and never asked for support, financial or otherwise.
However, in 2011 Patric and Schreiber briefly rekindled their relationship. Schreiber, Gus, and Patric spent time together, and Schreiber even told the child to call him "Dada." That said, Schreiber was still very much the primary parent. "He never changed a single diaper," she told the Today show. Patric never had a crib or a car seat, let alone a room for Gus. All that changed when they broke up in 2012, and Patric sued for custody.
That's when the media blitz began. Monstrous allegations about Patric's abuse and manipulative behavior throughout the court battle were widely reported. Schreiber got a restraining order against Patric, detailing several instances of abuse perpetrated during their relationship and breakup, including one occasion when he hit her in the face with a phone, and another when he threw a jar of almond butter at her, claiming she hadn't closed it all the way. However, dozens of celebrities came to Patric's defense, including Matt Damon, Sarah Silverman, John Hamm, Chelsea Handler, Chris Rock, and Robin Wright. All claimed that Patric's was a case of "parental alienation," tacitly vilifying Schreiber, a massage therapist. Though she is by all accounts a responsible parent, Schreiber has no stock of famous friends to champion her cause. Many of Patric's supporters attended a fundraiser for Patric's newly formed organization, Stand Up For Gus, which aims to change the laws regarding sperm donor rights in the U.S.
That's where the legal oddity comes into play.
California is one of many states that maintains an obviously outdated law regarding children conceived without intercourse. Family Code Section 7613(b) says that if a man provides semen to a physician "for use in artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization of a woman other than the donor’s wife is treated in law as if he were not the natural father of a child thereby conceived."
Laws like this were written in the 1970s to protect the rights of parents using sperm banks and the anonymous donors who supplied them. They protected individual privacy, prevented strangers showing up to claim children conceived with their semen, as well as parents from demanding child support from a donor.
But, in an age when millions of children are conceived through IVF or other forms of artificial insemination, this law doesn't account for the many kinds of parent-donor scenarios. Donors aren't always anonymous. Friends and family often donate sperm or eggs without considering the necessity of a contract. Furthermore, many fathers might not even realize their legal status until it's too late: If an unmarried couple conceives a baby through IVF that father would technically have no legal rights to the child unless both parents signed a contract before its birth.
Patric's case has helped generate new bills, like the Modern Family Act, which protects and defines the rights of all "non-traditional" parents. This includes expediting the process for LGBTQ families where one partner is the biological parent and the other must adopt the child at birth. It also refers to cases where a sperm or egg donor plays a parental role in their child's life, regardless of their relationship status with the other parent.
This morning's ruling doesn't necessarily mean that Patric will get custody of Gus. After such a highly visible and ugly battle, it's clear there are other issues which may sway the court in favor of his mother — and that may indeed be the what's best for this child's welfare. But, regardless of this particular case's outcome, parental rights have already been changed for the better.