Only artificial insemination — not in vitro fertilization — is a legally recognized form of conception that obligates both parents in providing for a child, according to a recent ruling from the Supreme Court of Georgia. The ruling states that IVF babies essentially have no legal fathers unless someone steps up to the plate, and that fathers who commit their sperm to AI need to provide child support even if they walk out before delivery. But fathers who participate in IVF are off the hook.
The ruling has sweeping implications for the tens of thousands of children conceived through IVF.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to IVF
Many people think of AI and IVF as similar procedures, but there are several key differences. Artificial insemination involves taking donor sperm and implanting it directly into a woman’s uterus. In vitro fertilization, however, is a much newer process that involves growing an embryo in a test tube, and then implanting that embryo into a mother. The reasons why parents would want to use IVF vary widely.
For those who suffer from endometriosis, a painful condition that can affect fertility, IVF often makes conception easier. IVF also allows couples to conceive with far lower sperm counts that artificial insemination. And it’s growing in popularity. An annual report released suggests that 60,000 babies — 1.5 percent of all babies born in the U.S. — were products of IVF in 2012.
Now, the Supreme Court of Georgia’s ruling has thrown IVF back into the public sphere. The case at hand arose after Jocelyn Vanterpool attempted IVF with her former husband David Patton. She had suffered several miscarriages previously, and her first attempt at IVF ended in similar tragedy. In 2014, Patton filed for divorce. Four days before the divorce was finalized, Vanterpool attempted IVF again with donor sperm and a donor egg, and conceived. Patton claimed that he had no relation to the child and no obligation to pay child support. Vanterpool retorted that she had written consent from Patton to continue attempting IVF, and that Patton is the legal father of her child.
The Superior Court of Georgia initially ruled that Patton is the legal father because he signed a consent agreement, even though Patton’s lawyer argued that he had signed under duress. But when Patton appealed, the Supreme Court of Georgia overturned the ruling. Briefly, their reasoning was that the state assumes that any woman who is pregnant and married is carrying her husband’s baby, as long as that baby was conceived through sexual intercourse or artificial insemination.
But not IVF.
“This appeal presents the question of whether that irrebuttable presumption applies to children so conceived by means of in-vitro fertilization,” Justice Carol Hunstein wrote in an 11-page opinion. “We conclude that it does not and reverse the judgment of the superior court.”
Vanterpool was shocked. Not only did the court use a 50-year-old law to provide legal basis for the ruling, but the ruling was based on what Vanterpool referred to as semantics — since the law recognizes artificial insemination specifically, the court essentially considers IVF babies fatherless. “Artificial insemination is just a simpler version of reproductive technology,” she said. “That’s all they had back then. They didn’t have anything else but that. If they would have had IVF back then, they would have also included it.” She’s not necessarily wrong — a dissenting judge named Christopher McFadden wrote a 19-page opinion that expressed more or less the same argument.
Legal squabbling aside, Vanterpool’s two-year-old daughter now has no legal father and that means that hundreds of thousands of babies born in the U.S. by IVF may be vulnerable to this legal precedent. The case highlights that such laws need to encompass all forms of reproductive technology — both to protect children from absentee dads, and to ensure that fathers don’t lose custody of their children just because of how they were conceived. Vanterpool vows to keep on fighting this decision — not just for her own children, but for parents and children everywhere who are affected by IVF.