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Appeals court: Father legally responsible for IVF baby

A father who attempted to deny legal responsibility for a child conceived through in vitro fertilization during a since-ended marriage is responsible for providing support to the child even though they are not biologically related, the Court of Special Appeals ruled Tuesday.

Stephen Sieglein signed the necessary contracts to enroll in an assisted reproduction plan with his ex-wife, Laura Schmidt, which led to the birth of their child in 2012, according to the intermediate appellate court opinion. But after the marriage dissolved and Schmidt filed a petition for child support, Sieglein denied any responsibility for the child.

‘A child conceived via artificial insemination or IVF with the consent of the parties and born during a marriage is the legitimate child of the marriage and legal parentage is established as to both spouses,’ the Court of Special Appeals held. (iStock Illustration)

‘A child conceived via artificial insemination or IVF with the consent of the parties and born during a marriage is the legitimate child of the marriage and legal parentage is established as to both spouses,’ the Court of Special Appeals held. (iStock illustration)

In his argument, Sieglein cited a subsection of a state law providing that a child conceived through artificial insemination of a married woman with the consent of her husband is the legitimate child of both parents. Because artificial insemination and IVF are “physically and scientifically distinct,” Sieglein claimed the law doesn’t apply to his case.

But Judge Andrea M. Leahy found the statute was meant to encompass the broader role of “medically assisted, non-traditional conception of a child” in establishing a parent’s rights and obligations rather than make distinctions between different methods.

“Under Maryland law, within the context of marriage, the precise physical procedure has no necessary impact on the relationships of the parties involved — mother, father, and child,” Leahy wrote in upholding a lower court ruling. “… A child conceived via artificial insemination or IVF with the consent of the parties and born during a marriage is the legitimate child of the marriage and legal parentage is established as to both spouses.”

Under Sieglein’s argument, the Leahy added, any parent not genetically related to his or her children could avoid providing support for them. In this case, if Schmidt did the same, the child would have no legally responsible guardians and would become a ward of the state.

Heather L. Akehurst-Krause, a Middle River solo practitioner who represented Schmidt, said although the case was unique in Maryland, the outcome was consistent with case law in other states. Akehurst-Krause handled the case through SARC, the Sexual Assault/Spouse Abuse Resource Center in Harford County.

“We are extraordinarily pleased with the decision,” she said. “The reproductive questions are just coming to the forefront — it’s a first impression for Maryland.”

‘Natural parents’

Sieglein and Schmidt married in 2008 after meeting on an online dating site. Both of them had children from prior relationships, but Sieglein’s profile on the site stated that he did not want to have more children, according to the opinion.

After they were married, however, the couple sought assisted reproductive services and eventually had a child. According to the opinion, both parents appear on the birth certificate, and both Sieglein and Schmidt cared for the child immediately following the birth.

A month after their child was born, the two separated, and Schmidt soon filed a complaint for limited divorce and a petition for child support in Harford County Circuit Court. During a hearing on the petition, Sieglein’s attorney asked the court to rule that the child had no “natural parents” because the identities of the sperm and egg donors were unknown.

But the court instead found that Sieglein’s consent to the conception of a child using IVF technology created legal obligations to support the child.

“No argument has been made in this case that setting aside paternity is in the best interests of the child,” Leahy wrote in the appellate court’s opinion. “It defies sound public policy to create, through the strained application of a statute, a subset of children who — based on the specific physical method of their conception — ‘ha[ve] no natural parents because we d[o]n’t know who the anonymous donors are.’”

The Court of Special Appeals also upheld a circuit court ruling that Sieglein had voluntarily impoverished himself to avoid paying child support, as well as an injunction aimed at preventing Sieglein from harassing Schmidt. The lower court had found that Sieglein was deliberately putting himself in her proximity despite an existing protective order, making her feel intimidated and threatened. The order forbid him from contacting Schmidt and required him to stay at least 75 yards away from her.

John Doud III, a Baltimore solo attorney representing Sieglein, did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the ruling on Wednesday.

The case is Stephen Sieglein v. Laura Schmidt, No. 2616, Sept. Term 2013.


About Lauren Kirkwood

Lauren Kirkwood covers the business of law beat at The Daily Record.