Seminal Case

How donated sperm spawned a child -- as well as a likely landmark legal decision

On paper, their initial agreement had the markings of an unusual but successful partnership. He was gay. She was lesbian. They were both unmarried. According to her attorney, they did not know each other all that well and had met through a hairdresser. She wanted badly to conceive a child, and he was willing to oblige.

So when Sharon Sullivan and Brian Keith Russell signed a "co-parenting agreement" in February 2003, these star-crossed nonlovers probably had good reason to hope for a scientifically engineered, legally linked, happy family. Two families, actually -- two families that would be separate (but equal), as their contract spelled out.

Russell would provide Sullivan with his sperm so that she could attempt artificial insemination, and she would keep trying until it produced offspring.

Al Cameron

"Any child born as a result of the donor insemination procedure will be the child of Brian Keith Russell as if he and Sharon Sullivan were married at the time of conception," the agreement states. "Russell will be named as the father on the child's birth certificate." On top of that, the two parties agreed to share child support and custody, with Sullivan furnishing the primary residence for the kid.

It wasn't your typical boy-meets-girl scenario, and by the time their daughter was born on March 2, 2004, their pact had fallen apart. In the beginning, the two had just set out to make a baby -- albeit in a hands-off, nontraditional way. By the end of their precedent-setting court battle, they might just make legal history as well.

Brian Keith Russell's attorney at the time had drafted the contract, but Sharon Sullivan signed on without getting legal advice, an omission that later became an issue in court.

"You'll have to ask her to get exactly what she wanted to do, but she wanted to have a child. And perhaps she was so desperate to have a child she didn't consider all the ramifications of what that meant," says Peggy Bittick, her lawyer. "After she entered into the agreement, she started finding out some things about him that made him a less-than-desirable parent." (Sullivan and Russell both declined interviews; the trial court file has been sealed.)

Their first effort to conceive, in February 2003, was unsuccessful; a second try that March resulted in pregnancy but ended in miscarriage. Details remain unclear about why their relationship turned sour. Bittick claimed in legal documents that Russell's departure for a romantic getaway in Paris at that mournful, strained juncture upset Sullivan. Regardless, by that June both got what they wanted: a child on the way.

Before the birth, the "couple" passed back and forth a revised "donor insemination agreement." Sullivan's life partner was added in the negotiations, and the new contract appeared to absolve Russell of his role as father, returning him to mere donor status. However, this second agreement was never signed.

In the final trimester, Russell's then-lawyer, Debra Hunt, sent Sullivan's attorney a letter. "In the spirit of co-parenting it would be appropriate for Mr. Russell to attend the birth of his own child," wrote Hunt. "Please ask Ms. Sullivan to communicate with Mr. Russell as soon as possible when the child's birth is imminent."

That never happened. But that didn't mean Russell didn't intend to stay involved with his daughter. Less than a month later he filed a lawsuit against Sullivan, alleging breach of contract, seeking a determination that he was the child's father and petitioning to establish his parental rights.

The suit poses a prime dilemma for Texas family courts, however. State law allows legal action for men "whose paternity of the child is to be legally adjudicated." But those same statutes take a dim view of sperm and egg donors, barring them from any parental claims.

Russell argued to state District Judge Bonnie Hellums that, unlike an anonymous sperm-bank depositor, he was known to the mother and even had obtained the parenting agreement obligating him to be an active father.

Hellums refused Sullivan's requests to throw the case out, prompting the mother to file a challenge to the ruling with the 14th Court of Appeals.

Appellate justices called the law's conflicting language a "paradox" and even asked the Texas Attorney General's Office for a friend-of-the-court brief on what it called a "matter of great public concern." The AG's brief concluded that Russell had legal standing. The 14th Court agreed, in a majority opinion authored by Justice Kem Thompson Frost last month.

Adele Hedges, the 14th court's chief justice, weighed in with a concurring opinion: The law "does not state that a donor can never be a parent under appropriate circumstances." She also noted that Russell isn't basing his legal claim on simply being the provider of the sperm.

Bittick says, "It's very bizarre because there is not a provision under the family code -- we believe -- that allows him to have standing to even assert his parentage in this case."

She is planning an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court. "We contend that if that's the situation, that any guy who goes to a cryobank or a sperm bank and makes a donation -- all of those guys…could come back and have hundreds of people say, 'Oh, well, you owe me child support now.' "

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