Sometimes she feels like a parentless child

September 16, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Jaycee Louise Buzzanca is not exactly an orphan. Nor is she, if you will excuse the expression, a bastard. But the 2-year-old from Orange County, California, started out her life with five parents. Now, she has none.

Fortunately, Jaycee is still too young to ask, ''Where did I come from?'' The answer would make the stork delivery system seem wholly plausible by comparison.

Her story began with an infertile couple, Luanne and John Buzzanca, a k a the intended parents. Having been on a roller coaster of fertility treatments, they set about having a child the new-fashioned way.

Then there were the genetic parents. A sperm donor and an egg donor, anonymous and unrelated, produced Jaycee's genetic material. These two had a fateful, if impersonal, meeting in a petri dish.

Next came the gestational mother, a woman whose cottage industry was renting out her womb to grow babies.

There were also assorted commercial and medical godparents involved in this creative act, but you get the idea. The Buzzancas signed a contract saying that at the end of the rental period, they would get the baby.

But a not-so-funny thing happened while Jaycee was still in the womb. The intended father changed his intentions. He left the intended mother.

When Jaycee was born, Luanne brought her home anyway and became the rearing mother. But John denied any responsibility -- including, need I add, child support -- on the grounds that he wasn't the father.

All of this is complicated enough for those of us who grew up before parenting was parsed into biological and cultural parts acquiring a whole new set of adjectives. But it gets worse. The small offspring of reproductive and marital dispute was left in legal limbo.

'Custodial person'

Last week, it was revealed that a family-court judge in Orange County sided with John. No, the judge said, he didn't owe child support because, no, he wasn't the father. This judge went even further to say that Luanne wasn't the mother either. He called her the ''temporary custodial person.''

This is how Jaycee, daughter of five, became officially a parentless child.

Now, from all reports, the toddler is being lovingly cared for by that temporary custodial person she illegally calls ''Mommy.'' But as the case goes to appeal, I am trying to imagine how a judge who is supposed to act ''in the best interests of the child'' could leave a child without any parent at all. How could the same judge rule that the man responsible for a child's creation had no responsibility for her support?

Jaycee's status as a high-tech pseudo-orphan may end when the ''t.c.p.'' who has raised her from birth adopts her. She will have one parent. But what of the other?

Under California law, John Buzzanca, the once-intended and now unwilling father, is not legally a father. He is not a biological father nor an adoptive father. Nor was he married to the mother -- whoever that might be.

The law does not order a man to pay child support arbitrarily. A stepfather doesn't have to pay child support for his stepchildren. A man who discovers that his wife's child is not his biological son or daughter may not have to pay either.

But there is absolutely nothing in the law -- yet -- about a relationship like John's, emerging out of the new reproductive technology. The infertility business has been geared more to the ''customers'' -- couples -- than to children. The contract the Buzzancas signed with the surrogate mother never laid out the future of any child if the couple split.

So what the court is left with in this path-breaking law is common sense. This is what the family-court judge left in his chambers. This is what will face the California appeals court.

This common sense tells us that John Buzzanca is as responsible for the existence of Jaycee as any man who ever created a child the lo-tech way. Perhaps more so, since he did it so intentionally.

In insisting that people care for their children, says Scott Altman, dean of the law school at the University of Southern California, the law is holding us responsible for the consequences of our actions, not just our biology. ''Just like we don't allow men to LTC change their minds after sex, we can't allow this man to change his mind.''

Never mind all the new language and parental titles that come with technology. There is a familiar title for a man who refuses to support the child he brought into the world: deadbeat dad.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/16/97

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