The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a woman who promised a sperm donor he would not have to pay child support cannot renege on the deal.
The 3-2 decision overturns lower court rulings under which Joel L. McKiernan had been paying up to $1,500 a month to support twin boys born in August 1994 to Ivonne V. Ferguson, his former girlfriend and co-worker.
"Where a would-be donor cannot trust that he is safe from a future support action, he will be considerably less likely to provide his sperm to a friend or acquaintance who asks, significantly limiting a would-be mother's reproductive prerogatives," Justice Max Baer wrote in the majority opinion issued last week.
Arthur Caplan, chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the decision runs counter to the pattern established by similar cases, where the interests of the progeny have generally been given great weight.
"It sounds like the Pennsylvania court is trying to push a little harder into the brave new world of sperm, egg and embryo donation as it's evolving," Caplan said.
McKiernan's lawyer, John W. Purcell Jr., said Wednesday an adverse decision against his client would have jeopardized the entire system of sperm donation.
"That wouldn't just include Pennsylvania, because we found out in the course of this trial that many doctors order their sperm for their artificial inseminations out of state," he said.
Ferguson and McKiernan met while working together at Pennsylvania Blue Shield in Harrisburg and had a sexual relationship that waned before Ferguson persuaded him to donate sperm for her.
Courts found that the two agreed McKiernan would not have to pay child support and would not have visitation rights, but Ferguson later changed her mind and sued.
A county judge said it was in the twins' best interests that McKiernan be required to support them. In addition to monthly payments, McKiernan also was ordered to come up with $66,000 in back support. The appeal reverses that order.
Elizabeth Hoffman, Ferguson's lawyer, did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment left at her office Wednesday.
Justice J. Michael Eakin, in a dissent, said a parent cannot bargain away a child's right to support. "The children point and say, 'That is our father. He should support us,"' Eakin wrote. "What are we to reply? 'No! He made a contract to conceive you through a clinic, so your father need not support you.' I find this unreasonable at best."