Family Law

Changing Families: Time for a Change in Family Law?

MJLST Staffer, Hannah Mosby

 

Reproductive technology allows individuals to start families where it may not otherwise have been possible. These technologies range from relatively advanced procedures—those using assisted reproductive technology (or “ART,” for short)—to less invasive fertility treatments. ART encompasses procedures like in vitro fertilization—in fact, the CDC defines ART as including “all fertility treatments in which both eggs and embryos are handled” (Link to: https://www.cdc.gov/art/whatis.html)—while other kinds of reproductive assistance range from artificial insemination to self-administered fertility drugs. In a study published by the CDC, the number of ART procedures completed in 2014 in the U.S. alone was almost 170,000. As scientific knowledge grows and new procedures develop, that number will undoubtedly increase.

Individuals choosing to utilize these reproductive technologies, however, can find themselves in legal limbo when it comes to determining parentage. In instances where an individual uses a donor gamete (a sperm or an egg) to conceive, that donor could be a legal parent of the offspring produced—even if that result wasn’t intended by the any of the parties involved. For example, the 2002 version of the Uniform Parentage Act—variations of which have been adopted by many states—provides for the severance of the parental rights of a sperm donor in the event of consent by the “woman,” as well as consent or post-birth action by the “man” assuming paternal rights. If statutory conditions aren’t met, the donor could retain his parental rights over any offspring produced by the procedure. To further complicate things, the use of gendered terms makes it unclear how these statutes apply to same-sex couples. A new version of the Act was proposed in 2017 to comply with the Supreme Court’s recognition of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, but it has yet to be adopted by any state . Even murkier than the laws governing donor gametes are those governing surrogacy contracts, which some states still refuse to legally recognize. Overall, these laws create an environment where even the most intentional pregnancies can have unintended consequences when it comes to establishing legal parentage.

For further illustration, let’s revisit artificial insemination. Jane and John, a Minnesotan couple, decide to undergo an artificial insemination procedure so that Jane can become pregnant. However, they aren’t married. Pursuant to Minn. Stat. 257.56, the couple’s marriage is a necessary condition for the automatic severance of the sperm donor’s parental status—therefore, since Jane and John aren’t married, the sperm donor retains his parental rights. The statute also requires that the procedure be performed “under the supervision of a licensed physician” in order for severance to occur. If there was no doctor present, then the sperm donor—and not John—would have legal parental status over the offspring produced. The example becomes more complicated if the couple is same-sex rather than heterosexual, because the statute requires the consent of the “husband” to the procedure. Further still, if Jane lived in a different state, the sperm donor might be able to establish parental rights after the fact—even if they were initially severed—by maintaining a relationship with the child. As one can imagine, this makes the use of known donors (rather than anonymous donors) particularly complicated.

Ultimately, ART and related procedures provide opportunities for individuals to create the families they want, but could not otherwise have—an enormously impactful medical development. However, utilization of these procedures can produce legal consequences that are unforeseen—and, often, unwanted—by the parents of children born using these procedures. The state law that exists to govern these procedures is varied and lagging. In the age of marriage equality and donor gametes, such laws are highly inadequate. . . In order for society to reap the biggest benefit from these life-creating technologies, the legal world will have to play a serious game of catch-up.