The Suicide of LeAnn Leutner

She left behind a baby boy, an estranged lover, and a custody case that would challenge progressive New York

Sporn made no appearance in the photos. He did not speak at the service, and he was not asked to write down his memories of Leutner for the special commemorative newsletter the club published in February.

"I feel like the world is against me," he says. "I'm like the witch in the Salem Witch Trials."

Both Sporn and Sylvester petitioned for custody of Lincoln. Sylvester filed in family court, where custody cases are considered private under New York law. Sporn, at the advice of his lawyers, filed in the Manhattan Supreme Court, where records are public.

LeAnn Leutner
LeAnn Leutner
Jonathan Sporn, LeAnn Leutner, 
and baby Lincoln
Jonathan Sporn, LeAnn Leutner, and baby Lincoln

"I am begging this court to assist me in piecing together the shattered pieces of my heart," he wrote in his petition.

Within days, the story was picked up by the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Outrage over Sporn's predicament lit the blogosphere. The story soon went international.

Much of the coverage delved into the social implications of Lincoln's guardianship. Similar unconventional custody cases have been popping up with increasing frequency. In Texas, a judge is considering whether a woman who gave birth to twins using donor eggs can legally claim to be their mother after the man, a gay friend who donated the sperm, sued for custody. In Massachusetts, a court recently ordered a man to pay child support for twin girls born using donor sperm and eggs—even though he was estranged from his wife at the time of conception.

"Gay rights are moving forward; single women now account for 41 percent of all births," wrote New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante. "Americans build caring families with lovers, friends and neighbors; from one-night stands and anonymous providers of genetic material. And yet, even in a place as progressive as New York, the legal system has been slow to synchronize to these altered realities."

In some form or another 35 states have attempted to address the issue of parental rights and in vitro fertilization. Most laws aim to allocate parental rights to intending parents, rather than sperm donors, egg donors, or surrogate mothers, says Naomi Cahn, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in reproductive law. For the most part, this prevents a donor or surrogate from making a claim on the child. Few states have addressed the rights of unmarried parents like Sporn.

"We need to decide when someone who has functioned as a parent is entitled to be recognized as a legal parent," Cahn says.

Sporn and Sylvester, overwhelmed by the media frenzy, both petitioned the court to have the case sealed. (Though Sporn agreed to share memories of Leutner and Lincoln, he declined to discuss the custody proceedings with the Voice.)

"The future of a child, not yet eight months old, hangs in the balance of this case," wrote Sporn's lawyers. "Lincoln deserves to live his life without being forever subject to Internet and other publications which reveal intimate details about his mother and himself. If this case is allowed to be publicized, he will spend the rest of his life as the subject of 'Google' searches, insensitive inquires as to his background and scrutiny by strangers. It cannot be that he should be bound to such a life."

Justice Laura Drager, who oversaw the custody proceeding in Manhattan Supreme Court, agreed.

After a social worker inspected Sporn's and Sylvester's homes in January, Drager found both living situations "to be appropriate for Lincoln."

"I believe it would be in the best interest of the child to have this matter resolved as soon as possible," Drager said. But she ruled that "the child will remain in the care of social services pending the outcome of the legal battle."

For six months, while Lincoln was in foster care, Sporn got to visit him for a couple hours every three days. "Things are so accelerated during the first year of life," Sporn lamented. "Every three days Lincoln is different."

He watched wistfully as the baby bonded with his foster parents. When he talked about his life with Lincoln "when all this is over," he considered plans to stay in New York so Lincoln could maintain a relationship with his foster parents. But as the months dragged on without resolution, the optimism drained from his voice.

"I may shoot myself before it's over," he said.

In June, Drager announced her decision to award custody of Lincoln to Sylvester.

Despite the fact that Sporn raised Lincoln as his own, he was fighting an uphill battle in family court, says Melissa Brisman, an attorney specializing in reproductive law. Because Sporn is not the biological father and he was not married to the child's mother, New York law views him as a stranger. In some states, fathers have successfully argued that they cared for the child. But in New York, no one has ever won on that argument.

Sporn is in the process of appealing, but Brisman can't give odds for his success.

"To the best of my knowledge," she says, "there's never been a case quite like this."

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