For connoisseurs of the bizarre, Michael Jackson’s life story has been an embarrassment of riches. Jackson’s serial plastic surgeries, his habit of inviting young boys for sleepovers, and his more public parental malfunctions–as when he dangled his infant son over the railing of a sixth-floor hotel balcony–give us plenty to talk about. But the most arresting fact in Michael Jackson’s biography has occasioned surprisingly little comment: He is the first male celebrity to have a child who has no mother–and, it seems, never had one.
As we have all heard, the mother of Jackson’s daughter and one of his sons is Debbie Rowe, who met him in her role as a dermatology nurse. According to Jackson, she noticed his habit of walking around cradling a doll in his arms and told him, “You need to be a daddy.” Although Rowe claims, and it is generally presumed, that conception of their two children took place via artificial insemination, Rowe was legally married to Jackson from 1996 to 2001. To all appearances, she was the most complaisant of spouses, content to let Jackson rear the children as he pleased while she lived her own, very separate, life.
As it now turns out, however, all was not well. Court documents recently filed by Rowe’s attorney, Iris Finsilver, complain of a “scorched earth” legal campaign conducted by Jackson, who continually opposed Rowe’s requests to visit her children and talk to them on the phone. Having agreed to terminate her parental rights in 2001, Rowe is now fighting to have them reinstated.
Jackson could not bring himself to share the experience of parenthood, even minimally. In one of the more disturbing moments in Martin Bashir’s documentary Living with Michael Jackson, the pop star describes the birth of his daughter, Paris. “I was so anxious to get her home that after cutting the cord–I hate to say this–I snatched at her and just went home with the placenta all over her.” Jackson goes on to explain that his second son, known as Prince Michael II and nicknamed Blanket, is the product of “a surrogate mother and my own sperm cells.” At one point, when Bashir tries to press for more details about this arrangement, Jackson cuts him off with the comment, “Women do it.”
And it’s true. Despite the policies of most fertility clinics, which prefer traditional couples as clients, women who wish to bear a child without an opposite-sex partner have long found ways to get pregnant through artificial insemination. The situation of a single man has been more problematic. The traditional surrogate mother–so named because she was originally supposed to be a substitute for an infertile wife–is also the biological mother of the child she carries in her womb. Regardless of their original intentions, surrogates have exhibited a distressing tendency to become emotionally attached to their babies. In the wake of the wrenching “Baby M” case of the 1980s, some states outlawed surrogacy altogether or refused to enforce the terms of the contracts.
California, by contrast, has evolved into possibly the most surrogacy-friendly state in the nation. Its courts have upheld the maternal claims of the “intended mother” over the surrogate. But even in this friendly venue, the situation of a single man who contracts with a surrogate to bear him a child has been somewhat unclear. Men who want to be sure that the surrogate will never ask for visitation or other maternal prerogatives have sometimes been advised to initiate a legal proceeding to terminate the surrogate’s rights on grounds of abandonment.
Recent developments in reproductive technology have made it easier for men who want to avoid the claims of mother-love. Eggs extracted from female donors can now be fertilized in vitro and implanted into a “gestational” surrogate who is not genetically related to the fetus. This method is more expensive and also more complicated, medically and ethically. Both egg donor and surrogate undergo treatment with hormones. The first attempt at implantation is usually not successful. Multiple embryos are created, and “excess” embryos may be frozen or destroyed.
In the 1993 case of Johnson v. Calvert, the California supreme court ruled that the gestational surrogate was not the mother of a child born through this procedure. Rather, the person who set out “to bring about the birth of a child that she intended to raise as her own–is the natural mother under California law.” Rather, the person who set out “to bring about the birth of a child that she intended to raise as her own–is the natural mother under California law.” A 1998 case, In re Marriage of Buzzanca, clarified and extended this principle, finding that an intended father was still legally the parent of a child born from donated sperm and eggs even though he had filed for divorce from his wife six days before the birth.
Neither of these cases specifically addressed the situation of single men, but they have been used to establish the rights of an unmarried man as the sole parent of a child born to a gestational surrogate. As the individual who initiated the contract with the egg donor, such a man becomes, in effect, the child’s natural mother.
It is now possible for such an “intended parent” to obtain a judgment affirming his rights before the child’s birth. Since California will not permit the space for the mother’s name to be left blank on a birth certificate, the single male parent may choose to list himself as the “mother” and leave the space for the father’s name blank. (The Department of Vital Records will later issue an amended certificate reversing the answers to these questions.)
Of course, there is no way know for sure whether Prince Michael II is the product of gestational surrogacy, but there are good reasons for thinking that he is. This arrangement would explain some apparently contradictory answers Jackson gave Bashir about how he chose Blanket’s mother and whether he knew her personally. It would also explain why the child appears to be white, despite Jackson’s statements that the surrogate mother was African American. But the strongest reason for assuming the use of an egg donor and a gestational surrogate is that Jackson can afford the best legal advice available and would no doubt choose the method that assured him maximum control and confidentiality. Indeed, “Blanket” simply appeared on the scene in 2002. The day and even the month of his birth remain as mysterious as his origins.
Martin Bashir’s film recounts a conversation Bashir had with Jackson’s older son, Prince Michael I. Asked, “Where is your mummy?” the boy answered, “I haven’t got a mother.” But this child does have a mother, and he will eventually know her name if he doesn’t already. His brother may not be so fortunate. If you think it would be strange to have Michael Jackson as your dad, imagine what it would be like to learn that the under the law of the state of California he is also your natural mother.
–Joyce Milton is the author of The Road to Malpsychia: Humanistic Psychology and Our Discontents.