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Do sperm donors have parenting rights?

Minnesota parents know that parenthood is a mysterious thing. It comes with great difficulty, great responsibility and great joy. It's a constant learning process, and what works in one family may not work in another. But, for all the ambiguities involved, it's usually pretty clear who's a parent and who's not.

That is not the case in a recent dispute involving the actor Jason Patric and a former girlfriend. The star of "The Lost Boys" donated sperm so that a former girlfriend could get pregnant. At some point, he decided that he wanted to be involved in the child's upbringing. He has requested some child custody rights, but so far the law has stood in his way. Under California law a sperm donor who is not married to the mother, and who donates through a doctor or a sperm bank, is not recognized as the natural father of the child unless the two parents have agreed to that arrangement in writing before the conception.

Patric claims that he has helped raise the child, now a three-year-old, and has a loving relationship with him, but the court won't let him assert visitation rights. The mother disputes Patric's claims and says that their agreement to conceive the child was made under the condition that he would never claim to be a father.

Now, state lawmakers are preparing to loosen restrictions on sperm donors' parenting rights. A new bill, passed unanimously by the California Senate, would allow sperm donors to assert parenting rights if they publicly acknowledge the child as their own.

Perhaps needless to say, this is a very unusual case. However, it does illustrate some important points about more typical child custody disputes.

Child custody comes in different types. Physical custody is the right to live with the child. Legal custody is the right to make decisions about how the child is raised, such as decisions about medical treatment and schooling.

Most Minnesota parents who have been divorced work out a form of joint custody, in which each parent has some rights to both physical and legal custody. The two work out a parenting plan, often at the time of the divorce, establishing how they will set up living arrangements and share custody of the child. Even in those cases where one parent has sole custody, or when the parents were never married to each other, the parent who does not live with the child has some rights to visit the child. Courts often leave it up to the parents to establish a visitation schedule, and there are many disputes in which one parent complains that he or she is being prevented by the other from seeing the child.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Jason Patric custody case inspires sperm-donor-rights legislation," Patrick McGreevy, July 6, 2013

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