by Gwenda Blair
Illustration: Dan Page
Men and women have been arguing about who said what to whom since the Garden of Eden, but in a case now under way in the Circuit Court of Cook County, this age-old debate has taken a new twist. Michael Wilford claims that when Christin Harris gave birth to twin daughters on September 12, 2003, he was only a sperm donor; she insists that he broke his promises to be much more and left her no recourse but to sue him for child support, as well as medical insurance and college tuition for the children.
According to court documents, here’s what they agree upon: They met the previous September and dated. Using Michael’s sperm and an egg donated by her sister Marjorie, Christin became pregnant through in vitro fertilization (IVF). Nine months later, she gave birth to Elizabeth Renee Harris and Kathryn Anne Harris.
But the list of items on which the parties disagree seems endless. Among the issues under dispute in a small courtroom at 32 West Randolph Street are whether this man and this woman were ever in love, planned to marry, or agreed to raise children together. To her, their trips were romantic getaways; to him, they were a chance to train for triathlons. She thought he was practically standing at the altar; he insists he was merely helping an older woman whose biological clock was running down. Even the precise details of the sperm donation are subject to fierce debate: she says the donation was his idea and occurred when he interrupted their lovemaking to ejaculate into a cup; he says that she asked him to substitute when the donor she’d intended to use moved to Seattle, and that he produced the semen by himself in a bathroom.
The halting trial opened last April and continued in May and September. At press time, the lawyers in the case were discussing a settlement; but, if talks failed, hearings were to resume in January. As with all cases in the court’s domestic relations division, there is no jury, and the proceedings might seem like little more than your standard “he said/she said” legal dustup. But behind the soap-opera façade, critical legal principles-not to mention the futures of twin girls-are at stake. When Judge Thomas J. Kelley issues his decision, presumably within a few months after the trial is finished, the case will be over for Michael and Christin. But for the public, Harris v. Wilford could play a pivotal role in determining what being a parent means in the brave new world of babies conceived in test tubes and petri dishes.
Behind the soap-opera façade, critical legal principles-not to mention the futures of twin girls-are at stake…. For the public, Harris v. Wilford could play a pivotal role in determining what being a parent means in the brave new world of babies conceived in test tubes and petri dishes.
In the summer of 2002, Christin Harris, then 41, appeared to have it all. The epitome of success, Chicago style, she had girl-next-door good looks, a condo apartment on North Wolcott, and a six-figure income as a regional sales manager for the Lumenis Corporation, which makes lasers used in Lasik surgery.
Up close, though, things weren’t quite so rosy. Christin, who was divorced, wanted to have a child, but she lacked a partner. Determined to go ahead on her own, she had tried three times to become pregnant through IVF using frozen sperm from an anonymous donor. But her eggs were unviable, which meant that to have a baby of her own she would have to use another woman’s eggs and, if possible, sperm that was fresh rather than frozen.
So Christin did what millions of people do when they’ve got a problem: she went online. For her, this meant clicking on to the popular dating service Match.com and posting a profile in which she used “Best is yet to come” as a screen name. Soon afterward, she got a response from “Chicagoloft”-Michael Wilford, a 36-year-old executive vice president at Rapak, an international manufacturer of containers for shipping soft drinks. He described himself as healthy, athletic, college educated, and Caucasian-the same characteristics Christin had sought when selecting a donor from a sperm bank during her earlier IVF attempts. There was one hitch-Michael wasn’t single-but his profile said that he was “separated” and “the divorce [was] currently pending within the court system.”
Christin replied to Michael’s message, and they struck up an e-mail correspondence. About two weeks later, on September 19, 2002, they met for drinks at McCormick & Schmick’s on Chestnut Street, a mutually convenient place to check each other out. “I’d done this before with women I met on Match.com,” Michael told Chicago (both Michael and his lawyer, Enrico Mirabelli, agreed to interviews, but Christin and her lawyer, Belle Lind Gordon, declined). “Eventually you have to make a decision to meet the person or else why continue to have a conversation with them?”
Michael and Christin both liked what they saw, and soon they began sleeping together. He left clothes and toiletries at her place, and they spent time with each other on trips out of town. But exactly what happened, and how they both understood it, depends on who is telling-and spinning-the story.
According to Christin, she told Michael early on about her desire to be a mother and her unsuccessful IVF attempts. “I joked with my sisters about bringing it up on our fifth date,” she testified in court. In addition to spending Thanksgiving with her parents in Wisconsin, she and Michael had romantic getaways in Cancún and New Zealand, skied together in Colorado, and met during business trips to Orlando and California. Over the months, their relationship grew increasingly close and committed-“In my mind, he was practically living at my house,” she told the court-and they spoke often about raising children together.
Michael, who already had a two-year-old son of his own, paints another picture. When they talked about kids, he told Chicago, the conversations had a different flavor: “I told her that I was getting divorced in part because I didn’t want to have any more children.” Home was his apartment on South Michigan Avenue-“I had my own residence and I stayed there,” he said-and out-of-town time together was nothing more than an add-on to trips that combined business and triathlons. “I was going to New Zealand with a friend who pulled out because his wife had cancer,” he said. “Ms. Harris was a last-minute replacement.”
Their accounts of key moments diverge even more widely. In Christin’s version, Michael proposed to her on December 7, 2002, while they were in her bed in Chicago, and as proof she showed the court her Palm Pilot entry: “Glorious day, Michael asked me to marry him!” But to Michael, the date holds no such memories. In court, he testified that he was in Florida and provided confirming plane tickets and hotel bills. “I would never have known what happened on December 7th,” he told Chicago. “[But] when my records were subpoenaed by Ms. Harris’s lawyer, I saw that I was gone for five days and didn’t come back to Chicago until the evening of December 8th.”
And then there are their sharply contrasting descriptions of what happened during and after the pregnancy. She says he was caring and concerned. He says he did not attend Lamaze classes, routine obstetrical appointments, or the childbirth, and that he paid none of the expenses relating to the children’s conception, birth, or rearing until 2005, when he was ordered to do so by the court. Even after the twins were born, he says, he saw them only during brief visits and at Christin’s invitation.
Hardly surprising, Michael and Christin also have different versions of how it all ended. According to Michael, they were still friends when he called at the end of December 2003 and mentioned that he would be seeing her less in the new year. But to Christin, this was the end of her dreams. “Mike said he wanted to put more space between visits, and I was very upset,” Christin told the court. “I knew in my heart that we would not get married at that point.”
Once again, she had a problem, and once again she did what many people might do: six weeks after the phone call, she filed a lawsuit demanding that Michael support her children, including by paying their medical bills and sending them all the way through college.
Despite the obvious gravity of the hearings in Harris v. Wilford, the two opposing lawyers interrupt each other constantly, squawking and squabbling like puppets in a Punch-and-Judy show. Such behavior would be seriously out of place in most criminal courtrooms, but according to family law attorney Gemma Allen, a partner in the Chicago firm Ladden & Allen, it’s almost de rigueur in family court. “It’s an aggressive practice,” she said. “There’s a little bit of the gladiator in anyone who takes on this kind of work. You take out every argument you’ve got in your bag of tricks, including ad hominem ones.”
But the constant sniping also reflects the struggles of the two attorneys over which of two Illinois statutes-the almost identically named Illinois Parentage Act and the Illinois Parentage Act of 1984, the latter passed just months after the former-applies to the circumstances of this case. In court, the two lawyers scrap over every detail, including the dates in Harris’s Palm Pilot, the precise contents of Michael’s supposed marriage proposal, what words like “many” and “frequently” really mean, and the difference between being “caring friends” and being in love.
Mirabelli’s goal is to promote the Illinois Parentage Act, passed to handle cases involving artificial insemination. Under its provisions, someone who donates semen for the artificial insemination of a woman he does not know-in other words, an anonymous sperm donor-has no legal or financial responsibility whatsoever. Further, even a husband or boyfriend who donates semen to his wife or girlfriend has no legal or financial responsibility unless he gives written consent.
In court, the two lawyers scrap over every detail, including the dates in Harris’s Palm Pilot, the precise contents of Michael’s supposed marriage proposal, what words like “many” and “frequently” really mean, and the difference between being “caring friends” and being in love.
Mirabelli contends that although Michael wasn’t anonymous, he essentially was nothing more than a goodhearted sperm donor intending to do a favor, whereas Christin was “a sperm stalker” out to create “a designer baby.” However, if this argument fails-that is, if the court concludes that Michael actually was Christin’s boyfriend-Mirabelli has a fallback defense: because Michael never gave specific written consent for the artificial insemination procedure, he is still off the hook.
For Gordon, the task is to demonstrate that the case does not turn on matters having to do with AI or IVF. In part, this means parsing the facts to portray Michael as a deeply involved participant who courted Christin with trips, gave her gifts, accompanied her to a medical consultation on possible embryo reduction, and even went with her to couples’ counseling. The very notion that Michael was less than a fully engaged partner, Gordon declared in her opening statement, is “a fantasy,” “concocted,” and “patently unbelievable.” The situation, she said, “was not just a ‘Please give me some sperm in a cup and I’ll see you later.’ This was a full-blown relationship.”
More specifically, however, Gordon seeks to demonstrate that the applicable statute is the Illinois Parentage Act of 1984, a second law that upholds the primacy of a document known as the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (VAP).
Which brings us to yet another heated debate, regarding precisely how VAPs came into the story. According to Michael, in November 2003, when the twins were two months old, Christin called and asked him to meet her at a bank for “paperwork” to set up a college savings plan for the girls. He told the court that, after a brief wait in line, they reached the counter and Christin handed him a clipboard with the documents already filled out and a big X where he needed to sign. “I never had the clipboard in my hands,” he told the court. “There were 20 or 30 pages folded over on top [of the clipboard] and covering the top half of the page.”
If he had rolled the extra pages back and looked at the tops of the forms he was signing, he would have seen that they were titled “Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity”-in effect, an official declaration that he was the biological father. Similarly, if he had read the small print above the signature line, he would have seen that he was accepting the obligation to pay child support and had been given an oral and written explanation of the legal consequences of signing. Instead, he told the court, he scrawled his name and left. “Everything she’d done up to then had been OK,” he testified, “and I had no reason to think there was any problem with this.”
VAPs are considered virtually ironclad, and by signing them and thus acknowledging paternity, Michael could be found to have financial responsibility for Elizabeth Renee and Kathryn Anne until they were out of college. “[Signing] it wasn’t the smartest thing in the world to do,” Mirabelli told Chicago in an uncharacteristic understatement. “If they gave out Nobel Prizes for stupidity, Michael would be a runner-up. But I’ve got a T-shirt that says, ‘Stupidity is not a crime, you’re free to go.'”
In an effort to make legal lemonade out of lemons, Mirabelli claims the VAPs are invalid because they were obtained through fraud. “He’d just come back from Paris and was jetlagged when she called,” Mirabelli said. “She testified that she told him the documents were to put his name on the kids’ birth certificates but that she knew that this meant that he would have legal obligations. In my book, that’s fraud.”
Christin’s lawyer isn’t having any of that. Instead, reading from a long list of questions-“Did you ever sign any documents on behalf of Rapak without reading them first?” “Have you signed things in the past that needed to be notarized?” “Did you read those documents before signing them?” “Did you sign any of the documents that Mr. Mirabelli gave you without first reading them?”-Gordon has devoted her efforts to building a picture of Michael as a sophisticated businessman who had every opportunity to read what he was signing and chose not to.
The situation, Gordon said, “was not just a ‘Please give me some sperm in a cup and I’ll see you later.’ This was a full-blown relationship.”
Given that courts in Illinois have bent over backwards to find consent in behavior regardless of whether there’s an actual signature on a consent form, the odds are not in Michael’s favor. “Even if he’d never signed the VAPs, I think Michael would still be obligated for support,” family-court attorney David Grund, a partner in Grund & Leavitt, told Chicago. To Grund, the real conflict in Harris v. Wilford isn’t between Michael and Christin, but between the rights of parents and those of children, and he’s betting that the kids’ need for support will trump any ambiguity regarding Michael’s long-term intentions toward them. “After all,” Grund said, “if the law can’t protect children, who will?”
Current public policy favors children’s right to support, but sooner or later that policy will need to address a man’s right to withhold support. So far, the battle for that right is a campaign in search of leaders, since it raises uncomfortable constitutional issues, including whether, when women have the right to choose whether or not to bear a child, men have an equal right to choose whether or not to be responsible for a child.
In the meantime, more children will be conceived through the use of AI, more sperm-donor cases will pile up, and pressure will perhaps build to the point that legislators are forced to respond. How soon and to what effect are impossible to predict, but Gemma Allen assumes some sort of change will emerge. “Men are making the argument that they don’t have the same opt-out provision when it comes to having children that women have through abortion, and that this isn’t fair,” she said. “We didn’t anticipate any of this, and I don’t think we’re sure how we feel about all the issues. I see this as another power struggle between men and women, and it could go either way.”