Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: The Jason Patric Situation

We've discussed some of the issues around child custody and parental rights before. If you are a man and you impregnate a woman, whether you are married to her or not, there is the strong possibility that the state will force you to, if not act as an actual on site father to your child, to at least pay some of your income to the mother for child support. The amount you pay can depend on a number of factors including how good your lawyers are, what the child has become accustomed to, how rich you are, how much of your income or wealth is legal and easily estimated and identified by child support auditors, how easy you are to locate, which judge you get, how aggressively the mother of your child wishes to pursue child support and how aggressively you wish to pursue joint or sole custody. And if you're married and your wife is playing house with other men, well generally you're also responsible for financially supporting any resulting children even if you don't find out about it until years after the fact. Deal with it. We hear a lot about how too many men refuse to support their kids, to "man up" and marry the mothers of their children or prefer to run around impregnating various women who apparently had the bad luck to slip and fall on the man's you know what. Some people even argue that the rise in single motherhood and/or out of wedlock births is mostly men's fault.

Well maybe. But if there's one thing I know for sure it's that it takes two to tango. The recent story below the fold about the actor Jason Patric and his struggle with one time girlfriend/friend with benefits/paramour/booty call Danielle Schreiber to be included in their son's life was fascinating to me. It reminded me of some of our previous discussions as well as the unacknowledged dangers inherent in alternate family units and new reproductive technologies.

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. 
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. Along came Gus, named after Ms. Schreiber’s paternal grandfather.  
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.  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....
Now I know of some men who are pretty crappy fathers. I also know of some women who are horrible mothers. It's just part of life. I have friends of both genders who occasionally vent about how much they hate their ex. I can sympathize. However absent some clear proof of threat, violence or unfitness, I don't think either parent should be able to unilaterally exclude the other parent from their child's life. I don't think that the child's relationship with their parent should be hostage to how the other parent feels. Again, obviously this idea of mine doesn't apply to child molesters, drunks, substance abusers, rapists, abusers, other criminals, etc. I can count the women I truly hate in this world on the fingers of one hand and still have most fingers left. Fortunately I do not have children with them. But if I did I would have to find a way, even if only for the child's sake to be (temporarily) civil, and allow the child to have a relationship with his or her mother. It's not my right to interfere with that. In my view it's almost sinful. That goes for either gender. I am suspicious of Schreiber's restraining order, coming as it did in a custody dispute.

So I think it's a little unfair and hypocritical for society to castigate men for shirking fatherly responsibilities and then turn around and try to prevent a man from doing just that. But maybe Patric should never have agreed to donate his sperm. Maybe he should have insisted on marrying this woman and/or doing things the old way. So maybe he's just out of luck. I certainly don't think that we should use this case to tear down anonymity for egg/sperm donors or allow such anonymous donors to show up out of the blue years later and start demanding parental rights. But to focus on the in vitro aspect of this case as Schreiber's partisans would like to do misses the point that this child, however he was conceived, was the product of two people who had an ongoing relationship with one another.

If we say that Patric has no parental rights because he was unmarried and/or used the wrong sort of technology to become a biological father then it seems we'd have to make other changes. Should we also say that no unmarried man has the right to demand fatherly rights AND that no unmarried woman has the right to demand child support? Somehow I think that second part would get more people's attention. Not married to the father? Sorry lady, no child support for your child. Better luck next time. Most people, and certainly not just unmarried mothers, would see that rule as horribly unfair to the child. Well isn't it horribly unfair to a child to prevent him or her from having a relationship with the father?


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