When Does a Man Become a Dad? When the State Says So

Over the years, American culture and its view on what “family” means has changed drastically.  Same sex marriage (while not allowed everywhere) is not as shocking as it once was.  Single motherhood has become acceptable and many couples feel that marriage is becoming obsolete.  Despite these radically shifting social views, the laws in the U.S. governing what makes up a “family” are slow to keep up.  And the people impacted the most by these legal doctrines are sometimes the least aware of them.

Take Chukwudera Okoli, who married his wife, Blessing, in 1991.  Despite years of trying to conceive, the couple remained childless through the years – including when they separated in 2001.  However, in 2003, Blessing became pregnant with twins through the use of in vitro fertilization, using donor sperm and a donor egg. On March 6 2012, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts affirmed a decision by a judge from Probate and Family Court  requiring Okoli to pay child support to the twins.

Usually, there would be nothing unusual about a married parent being required to pay child support.  Massachusetts, like New York, has a legal presumption that a man is the legal father of any child to whom his wife gives birth to, in addition to a law aimed specifically at artificial insemination, which recognizes the husband as the legal father of children his wife has conceived through artificial insemination.  Though Okoli and his wife were separated, they were not divorced (i.e. they were still married) at the time of the birth of the twins and neither of the parents is genetically related to the children.  Yet the internet blogsphere and media portrayal of the decision clearly shows a lack of understanding of either legal issue.  One such example of this confusion is a description of the decision of the Court of Appeals on Opposing Views, misstating the time of birth as “after the divorce,” when there was no legal documentation of any divorce – a legally crucial fact.

Okoli appears to be the victim of more than just ignorance of the paternity presumption though.  In the worst case scenario, his fear of deportation was also exploited by Blessing when she threatened to not support him in getting his green card if he would not give her consent for her to undergo an IVF process to receive donor eggs and sperm in to conceive in vitro.  Yet the argument that his consent should be void due to duress failed in court because Okoli failed to brief this claim properly.  One possible reason for that could be as Blessing attorney claimed in Opposing Views: Okoli already is a legal citizen and cannot be deported.  Furthermore, the Appeals Court ruled that his consent for Blessing to undergo IVF amounted to an intent “to create a child,” which is all that is required to be recognized as a father via artificial insemination in Massachusetts, “rather than consent to become a parent.”

Adding further to the confusion in the media, Okoli and his ex-wife had signed an agreement relieving him of any financial responsible for any children Blessing gave birth to through the in vitro procedure.  Not being aware of how consenting to his wife’s use of donor eggs and sperm would legally recognize him as a parent of any resulting children, despite the fact that his own sperm was not used, Okoli (or many others) could easily be led to believe the state should respect the contract between him and Blessing.  But the state’s agenda for recognizing Okoli as the father of the twins is clear.  Although the media tends to portray cases like Okoli’s as the state trying to financially ruin unsuspecting people, the state is looking out for the infant twins’ best interest.  Which, in this case, is some extra financial support.

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