She wants a baby, she gets pregnant `by accident'. It probably happens all the time, believes Sarah Litvinoff. Do fathers really matter so little?: AND I THOUGHT IT WAS LOVE THAT SHE WANTED
A teaspoonful of liquid has once again found itself at the centre of a courtroom battle. First there was the case of the woman who fought through the courts to be allowed to impregnate herself with her dead husband's semen. Now there's the misappropriation of Peter Wallis's precious elixir of life. All he wanted to do was have sex, for goodness sake, and Kellie Smith breached their contract by "intentionally acquiring and misusing his semen".

What's a man to do - especially in the United States - but sue? And what's a woman to do, except hire some clever lawyers to argue that Peter's ejaculate was a gift, and that he "surrendered any right of possession to his semen when he transferred it during voluntary sexual intercourse"?

It would be funny, except that a stray sperm in the stolen semen met up with an egg that shouldn't have been there in the first place, and the result was one-year-old Taylor Smith. Whichever parent wins, the little girl loses. How heart-warming to grow up to discover that your mother tricked your father (or not, as Kellie maintains) and that he felt so "shocked" and "betrayed" that he went to law to make sure that everyone knew he didn't want you.

The only new aspect in this story is the legal battle about the alleged breach of contract (he was given the impression that she was using effective contraception). Otherwise, countless women with a yen for a baby have used a man purportedly for sex, but really for procreation (his story). And countless other women have been "shocked" themselves when contraception fails (her story). Quite a few of these stories also have happy endings. After nine months the result is a fetching little creature: nature ensures a passionate bonding, even for erstwhile reluctant parents, and the anger and recriminations are often forgotten.

But just as often, a "stolen" baby is not wanted by the father, even in a marriage, and the relationship breaks up. So what? you may say. Relationships fail all the time. It's always going to be hard on the kids, whatever the circumstances of their conception.

I used to subscribe to the view that a father was an optional extra. In fact, when I made the best mistake of my life and became pregnant when I was 19 (not remotely on purpose), I knew that my relationship with my daughter's father - my first boyfriend - wouldn't last, and I didn't think it mattered if he eventually faded away completely. The idea of being a single parent didn't bother me in the least. And we did, indeed, break up before she was two.

My cavalier attitude to the importance of the father was slightly before its time (25 years ago). Now it's commonplace. You have the celebrity examples: Madonna choosing a fine physical specimen to father her child, whether the relationship lasts or not; Jodie Foster, picking through the sperm bank records to find the right combination of brains, health and stamina to father hers. It's always gone on, but never so brazenly or proudly as it does today. No one really frowns on single parents any more, unless they commit the greater sin of being poor and on welfare. Certainly they are not pitied, or thought unusual - especially when the single mother is independent solvent and successful.

The truth is that there are many women who have toyed with the idea of becoming pregnant without checking with the man first. I certainly know some. A few have been married to avowed non-procreators, but most have been in less stable relationships, or not in one at all, and have felt the pressure of the biological deadline. "I might just let myself get pregnant," they say. Sometimes its because they want to tie a man more securely to them, usually it's just because they want a baby. It doesn't matter what happens afterwards. They've got enough pent-up love for two.

It's a bit late for me to get all prissy about it. And I can see that it's also offensive to women who think "It's all right for her - she's already had a child". But over the years it became clear to me that whatever happens between the two adults involved, so far as a child is concerned, a father is for life. Her father's continuing presence (though erratic, and not practical or financial) was fundamentally important to my daughter. Not only because she loved him, but because she profoundly identified with the genetic inheritance that made her the human being that she is. It was also evident that she needed to be able to value and admire who he was to feel good about herself - the product - and as her mother I had immense power to affect those feelings. My duty was to value and admire him too.

The importance of Wallis vs Smith, so her lawyers tell us, is that if Peter wins, it'll cause a flood of similar cases: fathers escaping financial responsibility for their children by blaming the mothers for not using birth control. A typical lawyer, sticking to the facts. There is much more than money at stake here.

I believe there is an impact on children - and the adults they become - when they know that one or both of their parents didn't want them, even if they have no conscious memory of it. I know a number of adoptees who had perfectly good enough and loving upbringings, who are haunted by the thought that their biological parents didn't want them. Why do the ones who find out their mothers really loved them, but were made to give them up, feel so moved and reassured? What difference could it possibly make?

This point was even more startlingly made on a recent television programme about sperm-donor children. These longed-for and much-wanted children were brought up cocooned in love, often with two parents. Some of them were grown-up, even middle-aged. Yet all felt a fierce connection to their biological fathers, a desire to know that the donation wasn't just made for financial reasons. In many cases, the details of who their fathers were had become irretrievable. Some had good subsequent fathers, but all were poignantly focused on, and some quite badly damaged by, the lack of the man who had "made them".

There's a primitive side of us that knows we are half mother and half father, and when one of them is absent, unavailable, hostile or denied, there is often an equally primitive sense in children that there is something hidden or unacceptable about half of their inherent nature. It's not easily put right by words and reassurance. Other men or women can provide role models, but don't speak to the basic who-am-I question, which most obviously surfaces during adolescence, and which, for some people, goes on throughout their lives.

The story of Taylor Smith was juxtaposed in the newspaper by the story of Cameron Tompkinson-Batty, whose mother, Debra, had died after childbirth when her liver had ruptured. His father, Tony, said, "When he's older I will constantly remind him of what a beautiful mother he had." Nothing makes up for the loss of a parent, but as family histories go, this must be more healthy than hearing, "Your father sued me because he didn't want you to be born."