Chicken, Egg or Lawyer?

ELLEN GOODMAN

January 10, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.-- Straight out of San Quentin a brand-new movement has been born, or should I say conceived. It is the movement to ''Save the Sperm.'' Not the sperm whale, you understand, the sperm male.

This week, 14 prisoners on death row officially filed suit against the state of California, claiming the right to procreate by artificial insemination. These convicted killers want to have their sperm preserved for insemination with a willing woman. They insist that the denial of their ''right to reproduce'' amounts to ''cruel and unusual'' -- and therefore, unconstitutional -- punishment. Under the shadow of the death penalty, they are demanding the right to create life.

This case is stunning in its sheer chutzpah, yet in some ways it was inevitable, a synthesis of assorted trends in modern American life. Another entry into the ever-expanding list of individual ''rights.'' Another tale of our national obsession with 11 genes, sperm, ova and the technology of reproduction. And another example of the exploding number of bizarre lawsuits.

Just listen to Carter King, the intrepid lawyer who has taken on the cause of the condemned sperm. ''Procreation is a basic right,'' he says from his office in Reno, Nevada. ''While the law demands an eye for an eye, executing all future generations is extreme.''

Mr. King states his moral claim on behalf of spouses, would-be mothers and even would-be grandparents of the death-row inmates. ''I'm suing for the women,'' he says. ''They have the right to procreate with anyone they want to. I'm suing for the grandparents who will be deprived of the right to be grandparents. This family shouldn't be wiped out because their son committed a terrible crime.''

Admittedly, there are any number of men on the outside for whom fatherhood is just a sperm donation. There are many women who expect nothing more from men than their genes. The jails are full of such casually fathered children.

But until now, there has been no unlimited right to procreation. Women cannot join their egg to any sperm they choose. Warren Beatty, for example, is currently taken.

As for the plaintiffs, several of them did their best to forcibly ''donate'' their sperm in civilian life. They were rapists as well as murderers. The notion that ''family shouldn't be wiped out'' rings a bit hollow in the case of plaintiff Darren C. Williams who shot and killed an entire family -- a woman, her daughter and two grandsons -- in a murder for hire. (By the way, it turned out to be the wrong family.)

The idea that men have a right to be fathers also pales in the case of plaintiff Randy Haskett who wasn't a terrific uncle. He killed his 10- and 4-year-old nephews, after they saw him rape and try to kill their mother -- Haskett's stepsister.

As for the right to be a grandparent? Well, that is probably moot in the case of plaintiff Richard Stewart, who murdered his mother.

Of course the suit doesn't say how many children these men are entitled to have with how many women. Nor does it say anything about women prisoners. In the name of equality, they could stay pregnant, thus postponing the date of execution until menopause.

This rhetoric of rights and reproduction implies that the same state that can kill these men must save their sperm for immortality. It's a theory of valuing life from the moment of ejaculation to the moment of execution.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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