Who's Your Sperm Donor?

Santa Fe Reporter | February 24, 2005
A dozen years ago Kevin Zoernig doubted he’d ever become a parent. Today he’s a father of four with one on the way. The youngest two he fathered with his wife. The eldest two he fathered with a woman he never married, dated or even had sex with. Zoernig fathered her children through sperm donation.

The difference between Zoernig and countless other sperm donors, however, is that he didn’t donate anonymously. Two lesbian women requested he father their child and he agreed. Believing a male influence important, the women didn’t just seek Zoernig’s sperm, they wished him to play a role in their child’s life or be what’s called an “involved sperm donor.” Under an agreement the three struck, Zoernig would have visitation rights and input in life or death matters; the women would be the primary parents, responsible for daily child rearing and providing a home for the child.

According to the most recent census, an estimated 250,000 children live in homes headed by same-sex couples. Many of these children are the products of former relationships, but an increasing number of gays and lesbians are forming arrangements like the one between Zoernig and the lesbian couple.

While such changes in the family are groundbreaking, they also can be problematic—perhaps most so in the judicial system. A primary question the courts must tackle in such families is which parties are responsible for the children.

In 2000, the woman Zoernig donated sperm to sued him for child support. The two have been locked in legal battles since then. In spring of this year, Zoernig’s support payments will likely double. He argues that when he agreed to father the woman’s children, she assured him he’d have no financial responsibility. Because he has children with his wife now, Zoernig says he can’t afford to pay child support for the children he produced as a donor.

But in court, thus far, no distinction has been made between Zoernig’s role as an involved sperm donor and that of a more traditional father. In other words, he is still the biological father—no matter how unconventional.

Kevin Zoernig grew up in Iowa. In the heartland, his family of origin would arguably be viewed as not just unconventional but possibly deviant. His mother is bisexual and half of his siblings are gay. “I’m one of the three heterosexual kids in my family,” he says. Zoernig, as an adult, befriended people who mirrored his family members. “I had a history of having friends in the gay community,” he says. “I performed with [lesbians] in women’s music circles. The whole thing was familiar.” As a result, Zoernig says he didn’t find it strange that, during a five-year period, a few lesbian couples asked him to consider fathering children with them. Though he wasn’t put off by the requests, Zoernig never seriously considered them. “I wasn’t totally convinced of the stability of the couples both financially and emotionally,” he says. “These were relationships that were not going to last.” Zoernig adds that he wasn’t sure he himself was stable enough for parenthood. “I was a freelance musician. I was touring. I didn’t have much money.”

The last of the lesbians to approach him about fatherhood was Deborah Mrantz, a friend and music student of Zoernig’s. “I thought of Kevin because I knew him to be unconventional and very bright and from a very good family mentally and emotionally,” she recalls. When Mrantz asked him to consider being a sperm donor for her partner, he flirted with accepting her request. In his mid-30s at the time, Zoernig says, “I had been through a lot of relationships that lasted for two or three years that didn’t work out. I was cynical about finding the right person where I would commit to a long-term relationship and raise kids in the traditional way. This way I could be a parent even if I didn’t find the right person to marry and live with.”

Zoernig spent the next two years contemplating being a donor. As he did so, he devoted himself to becoming better acquainted with Mrantz and getting to know her partner, Janna Mintz, who declined to be interviewed for this article. Zoernig familiarized himself with the couple by visiting their home for dinner and playing handyman. “I would help them improve their stereo system, do little jobs around the house. I would work on landscaping for them.” His fix-it skills, along with his musical background, were the primary reason Mrantz and Mintz sought him out as a donor, Zoernig remembers. “I come from a whole family of musicians. I’m also very mechanical. I restore and repair antique Mercedes Benzes. I fix amplifiers, all my own plumbing and electric. I’m a very hands-on practical person.” When Zoernig visited Mrantz and Mintz to do repair work for them, he also discussed what it would be like to parent a child with them. According to Zoernig and Mrantz, it was agreed that Zoernig would have the status of involved sperm donor. “My understanding is that he would be an available male role model as opposed to an anonymous donor,” Mrantz says.

Fred A Bernstein, a non-practicing lawyer who wrote an article distinguishing anonymous sperm donors from involved sperm donors for the New York University Review of Law and Social Change, discussed lesbians’ preferences for donor types. “Many lesbians would like to have anonymous donors because they feel they may avoid some complications,” he says. “Other lesbians feel that there are important advantages of having a man in the picture. The main advantage may be the belief that children tend to long for whatever they don’t have, so it’s unfair to deprive the child of the opportunity to have a father.”

Zoernig became more comfortable with the idea. Mintz, he said, had “solid financial backing.” And the couple appeared committed. In October, 1993, Mrantz and Mintz were married. Zoernig performed at the wedding. The following fall, he agreed to donate sperm for their child.

In fall 1994, Mrantz and Mintz prepared to join the throngs of parents in the US in homosexual unions. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation estimates that one out of three lesbian couples, and one out of five gay couples, are raising children throughout the nation. After Zoernig visited the couple’s house to leave a semen deposit, he says that the couple used a turkey baster to impregnate Mintz. Mintz learned she was pregnant within weeks. On Aug. 15, 1995, Jared Maxim Zoernig Mrantz-Mintz was born. Before long, however, Mrantz would be dropped from the child’s name. About the time Jared turned 7 months old, Mrantz and Mintz split. The end of Mrantz’ relationship with Mintz also marked the end of her relationship with baby Jared. In retrospect, Mrantz says, “I personally did not want to have a family. I was starting my business in graphic design. But Janna was ready to do that. She had always wanted a family. I tried to support her because it [her becoming a mother] was inevitable with my participation or not.” As a result of Mrantz’s departure, a January 1996 agreement stating that she and Mintz would be primary parents, while Zoernig had acted as “known donor,” was terminated. No new agreement outlining Zoernig’s role was ever drawn.

Zoernig wasn’t prepared for Mintz and Mrantz’s breakup. “Obviously after two years of getting to know them and this very thoughtful process and having signed an agreement drawn up by a lawyer acknowledging my role in the whole thing, I really thought those two were going to be together for a long, long time.”

In addition to having him sign an agreement detailing his role in Jared’s life, Zoernig says the couple made sure he was willing to remain in northern New Mexico for the next 18 years. “I kind of felt like I was making this commitment with two people who were making a similar commitment to me,” he says.

After the couple broke up, Zoernig felt anxious about whether Mintz would expect him to be more responsible for Jared now that she was single. His worries proved unfounded as his role in Jared’s life remained the same. Mintz permitted him to spend time with Jared, both supervised and alone, and Zoernig says she did not require him to take on additional duties, including those of a financial nature. Overall, Zoernig felt so satisfied that he agreed to father another child with Mintz via artificial insemination when she made the request shortly after Jared’s first birthday. On Sept. 22, 1997, Zoernig and Mintz welcomed daughter Tauby into the world. Following Tauby’s birth, no legal agreement of any kind was brought forth. “This gives you an idea of how stupid I was or how laid back I was,” Zoernig says. “I should have had a lawyer from the very beginning representing my interests, protecting me from liabilities.”

After Tauby was born, Zoernig was more concerned with the home and career transition he was making than legal arrangements concerning guardianship. Then director of contemporary music at the College of Santa Fe, Zoernig chose to part from academia. “I was losing touch with my composition,” he says. “I decided to go back to freelance work. Also, at the time, I sold my house in Santa Fe, and while I was getting ready to move, I was offered an opportunity to live on a 400-acre farm in Mora County. It was a dream come true to live on a farm in Northern New

Mexico and have a freelance career and raise my kids in the country.”

After he moved, Zoernig wasn’t as geographically close to the children as he had been, but their relationship remained intact. His budding romance with Corinna Laszlo-Henry—a woman Mintz had hired to care for Jared and Tauby—only seemed to strengthen his relationship with them.

But, as 1998 moved into 1999, the unconventional fairy tale began to head towards a conventional and unhappy ending.

Zoernig was entering into a new relationship and he says he also encouraged Mintz to look for love. At least initially. But he soon began to worry about her choice in partners. Court records indicate that Mintz took at least one man she was involved with to court for domestic violence. But Zoernig admits he had concerns over Mintz’s relationships with both men and women prior to the domestic dispute. He jotted his worries down in a letter to her, he says, and after that her attitude towards him shifted. “It was like, ‘it’s none of your business. You don’t have the right to question anything that I do.’”

It is Zoernig’s belief that, after reading the letter, Mintz no longer wanted him in her life. Shortly thereafter, she filed a paternity suit resulting in Zoernig paying child support. Since 2000, Zoernig says he has been paying $300 monthly in child support. During the period in which he’s been making payments, Zoernig has also undergone some major life changes. He married Laszlo-Henry and has two daughters with her. The couple expects a third child any day now. As he struggles to take care of his family, Zoernig says the amount of child support he’s paying may be doubled or tripled in spring of this year.

The sperm donor issue has yet to be introduced in court. Zoernig says this is because he can’t find an area lawyer with expertise in a situation as unusual as this. “Are [child support] laws applicable to this situation?” he asks. “She wanted me to be the father, and she knew I didn’t have any money…I’m really afraid of how I’m being treated by the courts so far, like a deadbeat dad.”

Thaddeus Bejnar, the State law librarian at the Supreme Court Library, agrees that Zoernig’s case is unusual. “Most sperm donations are handled through sperm banks,” he says. “The donation of sperm is normally under a contract that permits [its use for someone] to become pregnant or not, and there is no intent on either parties to create a parenthood relationship with the donor.” Moreover, Bejnar says that Zoernig’s status as an involved sperm donor would require intensive research from a lawyer “to bring out the evidence and all kinds of procedural issues.” He adds that the fact that Zoernig and Mintz agreed that he would have visitation rights could be considered evidence that he had intent to become a parent and therefore should be liable for child support.

University of New Mexico Law School Professor Antoinette Sedillo Lopez says even if Zoernig and Mintz had drawn up an agreement stating that he would be exempt from child support or was not a “real” parent, the courts would not have recognized it. “I can’t just write down my parental rights on paper,” she says. “Once a child is born, it has parental rights. Unfortunately, a mother cannot waive the rights of support for her child. The court would not enforce a private agreement not to seek child support.” Instead, Sedillo Lopez believes that if Mintz wanted to limit the donor’s rights, she should have had then-partner Mrantz legally adopt her children. This would have terminated Zoernig’s parental rights and responsibilities, including child support. In the spirit of an open adoption, Mintz and Mrantz could have allowed Zoernig to have visitation.

As for the non-biological parents—or partners—in such situations the National Center for Lesbian Rights believes those individuals should be held just as liable for child support. Based in San Francisco, the NCLR is currently involved in a case in which a woman who was artificially inseminated with twins is suing her lesbian partner for not providing financial support after the couple split. The case is one of three involving children born to lesbians pending before the California Supreme Court, according to NCLR. “Our position is that we oppose people reneging on their agreement about parenting children,” NCLR Senior Staff Attorney Courtney Joslin says. “It’s our position that the former partner should be held to be a legal parent because it was their understanding of an agreement. We think it’s important for the welfare of children to make sure people live up to their children.” When told of Zoernig’s situation, Joslin said, “People who intend to be parents should be recognized as parents with both the rights and responsibilities of parents. If it was the original intention that this man not be the child’s parent then he should not be held responsible for that.”

Zoernig makes no distinction, when discussing his children, between those he fathered conventionally and those he fathered as a sperm donor. “Jared and Tauby are members of my household,” he says. “They have their own beds here.” Now nine and seven, respectively, Zoernig says that Jared and Tauby have a vague grasp of their origins. “They know their mom and I never did live together and that that was understood before they were born. Maybe they don’t understand the technical side of it, but they understand that their mom was never my girlfriend or my wife.”

Bernstein has mixed feelings about the courts distinguishing between different kinds of parents. “It’s very hard for courts to create gradations of parenthood,” he says. “You have all the legal rights of parents or you have none. For very legitimate, practical reasons, you’re either the parent, or you’re not. [Gradations] may cause more problems than they solve.” While Bernstein can easily identify the negatives of making parenthood more fluid, he says that it has been helpful in certain instances. “In some states, grandparents have been given visitation rights, a right that normally would belong to parents,” he says. Bernstein does believe that, as times change, society will have to make adjustments to the notions surrounding

parenthood. “Our society tends to think that every child can have two parents, never more than two, and that can be limiting,” he says. “There will probably be more and more families that society ought to recognize as having three or four parents.” Thus far, the District of Columbia, California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont permit

same-sex parents to jointly establish themselves the legal parents of children they’re raising together, according to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. While opposition exists against states that establish such policies, Bernstein wonders why no one objects to the rights held by biological parents not active in their children’s lives. “I talked to this man who admitted he’s lucky if he sees his kids five minutes a day,” Bernstein says. “Yet, no one in our society would question even for a second his right to call himself a father.”

While the children of Zoernig and Mintz may very well have questions about parenthood that others don’t, Zoernig says no one needs to tell them that the relationship between their parents is strained. In addition to child support negotiations, Zoernig and Mintz have engaged in court proceedings that resulted in them establishing a parenting plan, the psychological monitoring of their children, restraining orders to prevent the relocation of the children, tests to determine parental fitness and more. “We have very little communication except through court personnel and lawyers,” Zoernig says. Zoernig believes that most of the court proceedings would not have been necessary had he and Mintz had a better relationship. Though he regularly sees Jared and Tauby, Zoernig says meeting Mintz to pick the children up is as tension-filled as when they have to attend school functions together. Few pleasantries are exchanged during such occasions.

Pondering the family’s predicament, Sedillo Lopez says, “I do feel really sad for this family. And that’s true any time families break up—whether they’re traditional or not.”

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