How much child support would you have to pay for 67 kids? In the age of reproductive technology and sperm donation, being the biological father of 67 children is not entirely outlandish. (Even in the past, it occurred on rare occasions with married couples: according to Wikipedia, Mrs. and Mr. Feodor Vassilyev had a total of 69 children between 1725 and 1765.) One difference today is that a man can do this anonymously. At least, it starts off anonymously…
It started off that way for Aaron Long of Seattle. Over the years, Long has anonymously donated an enormous quantity of sperm. It began in the early 1990s, and at first he was paid $40 a pop. This lasted about a year, after which he began doing it for free. He estimates he has 67 offspring out there somewhere. He never planned to meet any of them. He signed a nondisclosure waiver and assumed there would never be a way for he and his progeny to find one another. “Then the Internet happened,” he explains in a New York Times story.
At first he searched the online “Donor Sibling Registry” but didn’t see any leads there, and he never got around to checking back. He was too early, as it turned out – he searched in 2000, but it wasn’t until the 2010s that his progeny hit their teens and began to use the site to find each other. Later, around 2017, he began seeing ads for 23andMe, a service where you spit into a test tube and mail it in, and they come back with information about your ancestry, health, and DNA-match relatives. “The opportunity was obvious,” Long writes, “but I assumed the odds of finding my children were low. I procrastinated for months before curiosity and an urge to know them made me order a kit. I got my results back, and boom: I had a son, Bryce.” Bryce, who is 20, informed him that “I’m one of six of your children that I’m aware of and in contact with.” Bryce proceeded to introduce one of them: a daughter, Madi, 19.
Things got even more intense when another of Long’s donor-brood surfaced: an 11-year-old daughter named Alice, who now lives with him, along with her mother, who was in a lesbian marriage when she took the anonymous seed, but now also lives with him, in a romantic relationship. Apparently the fact that he is Alice’s bio-dad stoked the flames of love. The mother’s name is Jessica Share and the BBC recently published her unusual story: I Met My Boyfriend 12 Years After Giving Birth to His Child.
Share explains that it was Alice who was first curious about her “genetic heritage,” and requested a 23andMe DNA testing kit. The results came back as Aaron Long: 50%. Father. “There are a lot of Aaron Longs in the world,” writes Share, “so I set to work finding ‘the one.’ ” She eventually found information about a man with a master’s degree in literature, in the correct age range. He was listed as a writer and musician. In his photo he was wearing an olive-green silk turban and blowing a trombone. She dug deeper on other social media sites and unearthed his old school portraits. These dispelled any doubt, Share writes drolly: Alice makes the same “stupid face.”
Might there be a future with Long, she wondered? “He was already family in some ways,” Share writes. Soon, they were together as a couple. “It’s hard to tell if DNA played a role in our relationship. I know that I am attracted to Aaron for all the reasons that seemed wonderful when shopping for him in a sperm donor catalogue years ago. He is thoughtful, persistent, and academically-minded. He is enchanted by words. He is empathetic, versed in stories about people and the strange things they sometimes do. He doesn’t much care what’s expected of him. He often plays his own music. To his own drum. Sometimes in a turban.”
Share and Alice both moved into Long’s Seattle co-op in the summer of 2017. Soon Madi moved in too. They eventually joined a Girl Scout troop with another of Long’s bio-kids. His aging mom has also moved in, with her cat. Share writes that she has learned a lot about what “family” means: “DNA has become far more important than it was when I first picked a donor from a page. Yet it hasn’t replaced the truism that families are built on love, not genes.”
Of the 67 estimated children Long has sired, so far he has verified only ten. “I have had some contact with the new ones’ mothers,” he writes, “but haven’t made plans to meet yet.” For Share’s part, she says Long’s co-op “may eventually cease to accommodate all of them, but I’ve got the sandwiches, and the door’s open.” A documentary is being made about Long and his biological children, called Forty Dollars a Pop. Watch the trailer here.
As for the child support question, what is Long’s potential liability? First of all, the law in Ontario (and many other jurisdictions in North America) says that, barring illness or disability, a child stops being entitled to child support if he/she is no longer a minor, which is typically 18 or so, unless they are enrolled in a full-time program of education, in which case some entitlement persists until the child completes not one but two degrees. So to the extent that Long’s progeny are over 18, healthy and able, and out of school, he’s off the hook.
Another protection for him is that in Ontario (and other jurisdictions in North America) being a “parent” in the eyes of the law is now largely determined by “intent” rather than DNA. (True, in the classic scenario where a guy “accidentally” impregnates a woman on a date, he is still on the hook. But that is not relevant to Long’s situation.) Indeed, Ontario’s amended Children’s Law Reform Act states that a person who provides reproductive material for use in the conception of a child through assisted reproduction “is not, and shall not be recognized in law to be, a parent of the child.” In Long’s case, everyone’s intent was that he would be a donor, nothing more.
Paradoxically, though, he could transition from being a mere donor to being – to whatever degree – a legal “parent” to his progeny. He could do this is by forming a “settled intention” to treat those progeny as members of his family. In short, he could become a step-father to his biological children.
It would appear he has done exactly that, at least with Alice. Therefore if his relationship with Share breaks up, there would be child support liability. By the same token, Long would acquire custody and access entitlements. (Technically, family law sees these as a child’s entitlements.)
There now appears to be a legal “continuum” of parental rights and responsibilities, based on the intent of the parties, not DNA. On one end, there is the mere donor of sperm who is nothing more than that. For the mere donor there is no child support liability, and no custody and access entitlement. On the other end of the continuum there is the traditional couple (the one-night stand may be included here for convenience) who breaks up. For the traditional couple, there is of course child support liability, and custody and access entitlement.
Thus, two potential cases at the extremes of an increasingly complicated continuum present themselves: dissolution of a relationship (or a mere sexual encounter) that produces a child via intercourse, which requires both parents to provide support;* and an anonymous sperm donation, absent sex, resulting in the birth of a child. These opposed extremes produce two distinct views that we believe to be self-evident. In the case of traditional sexual reproduction, there simply is no question that the parties to any resultant conception and birth may not contract between themselves to deny the child the support he or she requires… In the institutional sperm donation case, however, there appears to be a growing consensus that clinical, institutional sperm donation neither imposes obligations nor confers privileges upon the sperm donor. Between these poles lies a spectrum of arrangements that exhibit characteristics of each extreme to varying degrees — informal agreements between friends to conceive a child via sexual intercourse; nonclinical non-sexual insemination; and so on. Although locating future cases on this spectrum may call upon courts to draw very fine lines, courts are no strangers to such tasks…
So, where does this leave Long? Hopefully he will never have to find out. But he might want to think twice before throwing open his door to his entire set of offspring. It’s not the DNA that matters, it’s his “settled intention” to treat them as members of his family that might trigger rights and responsibilities upon breakup. In short, he might want to lock the door and hide the sandwiches. Or not. Provided his bank account can handle it!
For advice on family law issues and fertility law issues, contact Shirley Levitan.
(*Ontario’s Children’s Law Reform Act also provides that in a situation where a man donates sperm using sex, he is not a parent provided there is a pre-conception written agreement to this effect. This is not the ‘one-night stand’ or relationship or dating scenario. This is a pre-conception intent and agreement that he is a donor, reduced to writing, prior to the act.)