The Supreme Court ruled Monday that children conceived by in-vitro fertilization after their father's death aren't automatically entitled to Social Security survivors insurance benefits, resolving a question posed by modern fertility methods that has divided lower courts.Of course, in this case, these events were the result not of magic or a battle between the gods but of frozen sperm and in vitro fertilization.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress intended the benefit not to assist "needy persons" in general, but for the more specific purpose of alleviating a family's hardship upon a breadwinner's death.
To that end, the Social Security Administration was entitled to rely on state inheritance law to determine which survivors are entitled to benefits. And in the case of Robert Nicholas Capato, a Pompano Beach, Fla., resident who died 18 months before the children were born, state law didn't consider them his heirs.
The ruling in question is actually very narrow. It doesn't seek to determine whether someone can legally claim someone as a father if one was conceived after his death, it simply holds that social security benefits are determined by state law, which in this case means that the twins conceived nine months after their father died are not considered his legal heirs for purposes of social security.
However, the general topic struck me in relation to a much boarder issue: What exactly does "fatherhood" mean anyway. Given our scientific leanings, there's a strong tendency to define a father as whoever provided the male half of the genetic material for a child. Thus, a little while back there were news stories going around about a prolific sperm donor who had "fathered" dozens of children without ever knowing any of them. I'm inclined to think that, at a minimum, one can't consider someone to have "fathered" a child if he doesn't do so through physical union with the child's mother. Thus, one of the several senses in which conceiving a child with the help of an anonymous sperm donor is wrong is that is deprives the child of having a father.
In a situation like the one related to this legal case, though it appeals to a certain dark romanticism ("Even death could not end their love!") I am actually inclined to think the same. If you were conceived after your father's death, he's not really your father.