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Father or sperm donor? Jason Patric's custody plea prompts California hearing.

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“The fact is, I had a little modicum of fame to bring light to a problem that’s going to affect in such a horrific manner children and families,” he said. “I didn’t donate my sperm; I gave my sperm to have a child.… I want my son back,” he said during an interview with ABC's Katie Couric in June.

In emotional but measured testimony Tuesday, Patric said he went to "great lengths," including surgery, to become a father. He said both he and Schreiber signed an "intended parent" document, but that current California law prevented him from making his case before a judge. Other men have complained about the same thing, he said.

The emergence of sperm banks and the high success rate for in vitro fertilization have created markets where would-be moms can shop for the right attributes in a sperm donor without having to deal with the actual man. They have opened new options for older unmarried women, as well as for same-sex couples who want to raise children who are biologically connected to one of them.

But the effects of those advances concern some researchers, including Mr. Day.

“There’s a fundamental contribution that men make,” but it's being tested by an emerging view among some mothers, or would-be mothers, that “’I want your sperm because you’re good-looking, you have a high IQ, and you do OK on personality tests, but basically I don’t want you around," he says.

Day cites the unknown effects of what he calls “intergenerational confusion,” in which traditional roles such as fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are upended in part by government policies such as welfare but also by changing cultural mores in which women hold increased power over child-bearing and in determining family structure.

Worry that women would see their parental rights erode is why the National Organization for Women and some other feminist groups oppose the bill considered Tuesday by a panel of the California Assembly. Giving judges greater discretion on custody cases involving in vitro fertilization, they argue, would whittle away at women’s autonomy by ceding some power to sperm donors who suddenly want a greater-than-planned role in raising the child.

"Parents, reliant on a sperm donor's agreement not to parent, could have allowed the donor to develop a close relationship with the child, without thinking that he could later come in and demand paternal rights," warned Assemblyman Tom Ammiano in a letter to the Assembly Judiciary Committee in June.

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