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Lilah Sutphen Headshot

Sperm Donor Conception: Not a DIY Project!

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Several months ago I consulted with a woman and her same-sex partner. I'll refer to them as "Sue" and "Sally." They had a 3-year-old son who was conceived using sperm donated directly to the couple by a close friend named "Stan." Donation and conception took place under friendly circumstances at the women's home. Stan did his part in the privacy of their bathroom, and they promptly used his sperm to create a baby. Voilà, the conception of "Baby X" was confirmed in a matter of weeks.

I asked Sue and Sally why they never hired lawyers, and why they asked Stan to donate his sperm in their home. The answer was the same I hear every time I ask this question: They had wanted to keep the relationship and the process "natural" and "informal" so as not to scare Stan.

Fast-forwarding three years to the reason Sue and Sally were in my office, it turns out they were not enjoying the friendship they once had with Stan. Instead, they were exchanging heated emails and text messages with him. Stan had fallen in love with Baby X, and Sue and Sally had become uncomfortable with Stan's expectations regarding his role and time spent with the child. Stan had mentioned possible legal action to obtain parental rights.

Sue and Sally wanted to know if Stan could file for legal rights and, heaven forbid, obtain a formal custody order. Sue was angry with Sally for refusing to hire an attorney or use a physician for the sperm donation in the first place. Sally's mind was blown that Stan could potentially have legal rights to her child. The thought had never crossed her mind. We had a mess on our hands.

Our nation presents a very complicated state-by-state legal quilt on donor insemination. But one thing is consistent throughout the country: No matter where you live, the informal, friendly, at-home donation method is a bad idea. The casual use of a friend's sperm almost always leads to unwanted legal consequences.

New parents often tell me they want to avoid formality because it feels wrong -- somehow it defeats the entire purpose of becoming parents. Why hire physicians and attorneys for something that should be natural and organic? The answer is simple: Becoming a parent is one of the most important things you will do in this lifetime, and it needs to be done right.

Choosing to use a friend as your sperm donor is a big decision. Do not shy away from formality and transparency! You likely chose your donor for more than his pretty face -- you probably share a deep emotional connection with him. This makes transparency and formality that much more important. A contract ensures that you, your partner, and your sperm donor have a complete meeting of the minds regarding expectations, roles, legal rights, etc. The same holds true for involving a physician; it not only ensures medical safety but protects your donor legally.

If you are using a known donor whom you do not want to have parental rights, the safe approach is to formalize -- anything less is asking for trouble. This is a two-step process: First, hire an attorney to explain the process and draft the necessary contracts for you. Second, have the donor provide his sperm through a licensed physician. The clarity and transparency that comes with the formal approach is not only shrewd planning; it's respectful to the donor.