Defining Parenthood

02.03.2013, 7:39 PM

At the NYT, reporter Ginia Bellafonte had a story yesterday, “When the Law Says a Parent Isn’t a Parent“:

Gay rights are moving forward; single women now account for 41 percent of all births. Americans build caring families with lovers, friends and neighbors; from one-night stands and anonymous providers of genetic material. And yet, even in a place as progressive as New York, the legal system has been slow to synchronize to these altered realities.

It is hard to imagine anyone experiencing this more viscerally right now than a man named Jonathan Sporn, a 54-year-old pharmaceuticals executive living on the Upper West Side, who in a sense has fallen prey to a system that excessively privileges the conventional family models from which there seems to be a growing exodus.

According to a custody petition Dr. Sporn filed in Manhattan Supreme Court last month, he and his girlfriend, Leann Leutner, had a baby boy — Lincoln Amory Aurelian Sporn Leutner — last July, with the help of in vitro fertilization. The couple had issues conceiving but found success with the use of an anonymous sperm donor. Dr. Sporn and Ms. Leutner, both of whom had divorced previous partners, were not married. But they had lived together since 2010 and were deeply committed to starting a family.

Then in mid-December, Ms. Leutner, a lawyer at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, left with Lincoln for New Jersey, where a few days before the end of the year she got a new apartment. On New Year’s Day, she committed suicide. Her death, according to the petition, followed previous attempts to take her own life and a long history of psychological difficulty made worse by postpartum depression. Her departure for New Jersey had been preceded by a stay at Mount Sinai for psychiatric treatment. Ms. Leutner left the hospital prematurely, the petition states, against Dr. Sporn’s judgment, assisted by a friend.

Ever since his mother’s death, the baby has been in the custody of child protective services. He is currently in foster care in New York City, even though Dr. Sporn desperately wants him returned home and Ms. Leutner’s sister, Susan Sylvester, who lives in Illinois, is also seeking custody…

What is Parenthood, an interdisciplinary volume published this month by  NYU Press–that was gestated here at the Institute and brought to life by its lead editor, Boston University legal scholar Linda McClain– examines contemporary quandaries when it comes to defining parenthood.


10 Responses to “Defining Parenthood”

  1. Diane M says:

    It’s a terrible situation, but I find I have the rather hard-hearted response that they should have gotten married. If they really didn’t want to do that, he should have legally adopted his child. The mess is ultimately the parents’ fault here.

    The columnist doesn’t think so. As she puts it:

    “The law doesn’t reflexively recognize the role you have played, or the obvious parental intent that attaches to anyone who has gone to the trouble to have a child with assisted reproductive technology, or the number of times you’ve performed 3 a.m. feedings.”

    She wants the law to adjust and change. I think that’s unreasonable. Getting married or adopting a child is a way that you signal to the rest of society that you are going to raise this child, even though they are not your biological relative.

    We need to have some kind of rules for who is related to a child. Saying you took care of them would just mean that the babysitter had a right to your child. Or you could steal a child off the street and do 3 a.m. feedings.

    Rules also help us define responsibilities. You have to care for a child because you made them or because you adopted them or because you married their mother. Would we want a system that required you to be responsible for a child if you lived with someone and helped your roommate with her kid?

    I think the columnist is feeling sympathetic to the family and not thinking about the precedents of saying you don’t have to have a legal relationship to a child to get custody of them.

  2. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    “Getting married or adopting a child is a way that you signal to the rest of society that you are going to raise this child, even though they are not your biological relative.”

    Amen. (And new readers, I’m open to marriage and adoption being open to same sex couples. But please, same sex or heterosexual, especially if you do not have the biological connection to the child, make plain your legal and social commitment to the child, for the child’s sake.)

  3. Diane M says:

    Well, same sex couples don’t always have the option to show their intent to raise the child legally. I would have a different reaction if the couple had no legal way to marry or adopt.

    This couple, though, could have done it.

  4. kisarita says:

    I view him as a step parent since he never completed an adoption. Step parents today have no legal rights. I do believe that step parents should have certain rights, just not equal to the bio parent.

    But the aunt isn’t either a parent. What should a step parents rights be vis a vis extended kin?

    The idea that they put the kid in foster care while waiting for the case to go through is the most outrageous part of the story, as if the step father was some sort of kidnapper!

  5. kisarita says:

    reread the article and you will notice a trifle detail snuck in- the mother had aplit up with him before her death.

  6. kisarita says:

    she didn’t just die, either. she committed suicide after a long psychiatric history. and just think some where some anonymous sperm donor is patting himself on the back for his good deed of creating a family..

  7. Diane M says:

    kisarita – An aunt is at least biological kin. She should have gotten custody instead of putting the kid in foster care, at least temporarily.

  8. kisarita says:

    I agree now that I realize the “small” detail that the couple had split up. If they were still together at the time of her suicide, it would make no sense to remove the kid from his home.
    But foster care should be a last resort no matter what.

  9. marilynn says:

    kisarita says:
    02.04.2013 at 7:19 AM
    she didn’t just die, either. she committed suicide after a long psychiatric history. and just think some where some anonymous sperm donor is patting himself on the back for his good deed of creating a family..

    :) yeah. This kid has a bio parent out there who is probably perfectly capable of taking care of his kid. Let’s talk about why this child is not entitled to his care and financial support. Lets talk about why half this child’s family has no idea she exists because I’d bet my life on the fact that one of them would care very much about their baby grand daughter or niece languishing in foster care about to be raised by the dead mother’s ex boyfriend. I’m serious about this. What happens to the families of donors is just as wrong as what happens to the child. Nobody should have the right to control and keep private information that pertains to them and the health of their family. If I am someone’s aunt I want to know about that and I want to know who so I don’t date them so my kid does not date them. I also want to know because I want to make them feel important and included even if my stupid old brother was not married to their mom. I’d want to tell them that their importance has nothing to do with whether or not their parents were married to each other and I’d want to tell them that no kid he raises will ever be more valuable or important than they are. I’d trip over myself to make sure they had an advocate in their own family. So would plenty of people. Normal people care about their family members bio and non bio.

  10. Matt N says:

    Unsurprisingly, I disagree with everyone here. : P

    That said, I find it pretty troublesome that we’re suddenly supposed to care about social parents thrown into the mix through ARTs now that that’s happening to straight people. If marriage and adoption are indicators of commitment to the family, then why aren’t same-sex couples who are pushing for marriage and adoption part of the story?

    kisarita: “reread the article and you will notice a trifle detail snuck in- the mother had aplit up with him before her death.”

    Yes, meaning that the child wasn’t being raised by Sporn for a whole two weeks. Is your argument really that he has no connection with this child he spent five months raising, because of that two week period? (Or is your argument that Sporn can only have a relationship with the child through a relationship with a biological parent – and if so, why?)