SACRAMENTO — A child-custody dispute involving actor Jason Patric has evolved from Hollywood tabloid fodder into a policy battle in the state Legislature that could affect thousands of California parents.
Patric, a star of films including "The Lost Boys," donated sperm in 2009 as part of a fertility treatment that resulted in pregnancy for a former girlfriend, Danielle Schreiber.
The actor decided he wanted to help raise the child, Gus, who is now 3, but has been stymied in his attempts to gain partial custody in court. A bill unanimously passed by the state Senate, now pending in the Assembly, would change the law to make such efforts easier.
Under state law, someone who donates sperm through a doctor or sperm bank and who is not married to the woman who conceives is not recognized as the child's natural father. The only exception is if the couple agreed in writing before conception that the donor was to be considered a parent.
Patric had donated the sperm in a doctor-supervised procedure, but he and Schreiber had no such agreement, and the two are no longer together, according to Fred D. Heather, Schreiber's attorney. As a result, a judge denied Patric's claim.
A bill by state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) would allow courts to grant parental rights to sperm donors under broader conditions — for example, if a donor showed that he openly acknowledged the child as his own and received the child into his home.
"In circumstances where you have a sperm donor creating a parenting relationship with a child, someone should not be allowed to take that away from the child," said Hill, who has written other parental-rights laws.
Hill said it is appropriate that the bill is being considered in California, which has more fertility clinics than any state. Parental roles are shifting with family dynamics and technological advances, he noted.
Patric and Schreiber disagree on the nature of their relationship and the extent to which Patric was involved in the child's life. Patric said in a statement to The Times that the couple agreed to have a child together and that he has had a "loving relationship" with his son.
"I cared for him, I supported him, I raised him along with his mother." Patric said. "No child should have to endure a painful separation from a parent who loves that child because the other parent is no longer willing to share the child and asserts a legal technicality."
Schreiber disputes his account.
"When Jason offered me his sperm, it was under the condition that his donation never be made public and that he would not be a father to the child," she said in a statement to The Times.
Heather said the bill would negatively affect many other women if it passed.
"What you will have is tremendous litigation," the attorney said. "It will cause women to not allow any contact between the sperm donor and the child. In many cases, when they use a known donor it's because they want the child to be able to have some relationship."
The Hill proposal would help other fathers by giving them standing to file paternity claims, according to Fred Silberberg, the Beverly Hills attorney representing Patric.
"I would hope," the attorney said, "that it would have consequences that would protect other fathers in the same situation."
Supporters of the legislation include Equality California, a gay-rights group, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Both note that the bill, SB 115, would not be blanket permission for all sperm donors to obtain parental rights.
The bill is opposed by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), a leading voice in the Legislature for gay rights. He recently won a delay in a committee vote on the measure until next month so that differing parties can talk.
It is inappropriate for lawmakers to intervene in a case going through the courts, Ammiano said in a letter to the chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
Such involvement, he said, "would be an open invitation to any other family-law litigants who lose their cases at the trial level, but are rich enough to hire lobbyists and PR firms, to appeal their case directly to the Legislature and circumvent the judicial process."
The bill also has drawn opposition from the California National Organization for Women and its president, Patricia Bellasalma.
The bill would "reinstitute male dominance over women by privileging the male sperm donor's right to exercise ownership in the child over the reproductive liberty of the mother," she said in a letter to lawmakers.