Defining parenthood is far less simple than it used to be.
That fact was made abundantly clear by the California Supreme
Court's ruling this week in three cases involving reproductive
technology and lesbian relationships.
In California, the landmark decisions - which granted full
parenthood to former partners despite the absence of legal adoption
or, in two of the cases, a biological connection - have made the
terrain a little clearer and solidified the direction in which many
courts are moving: conferring the rights and responsibilities of
parenthood based on intent and psychology rather than biology,
adoption, or marriage.
But as the decisions have been lauded and decried across the
country, they've also underlined the vastly different patchwork of
how states handle the often-murky relationships at the nexus of
reproductive technology and shifting family structures.
"I regard these three decisions as unprecedented because they go
so far toward protecting children without regard to marital status
or biology or gender of the parent, but at the same time they're not
unique," says Joan Hollinger, an adoption and parentage law expert
at the University of California in Berkeley. "They're part of the
quest on the part of so many states to figure out how to define
parentage when sex is separated from reproduction."
At least nine states officially allow second-parent adoption -
often sought by gay couples - and several confer visitation rights
or have ordered child support from nonbiological or nonadoptive
But the California cases are the first in which such individuals
have been declared full legal parents, with the rights of, say,
inheritance or social-security benefits.
The rulings also affect heterosexual couples who use reproductive
technology but this week, much of the reaction has focused on the
court's statement that "We perceive no reason why both parents of a
child cannot be women."
"Same-sex couples are now able to procreate and have children,
and the law has to catch up with that reality," says Shannon Minter,
legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Like many
gay-rights advocates, he applauded the decision for recognizing
parental bonds outside of gender or marital status.
The three decisions, while all involving reproductive technology,
addressed very different situations. In one, a woman was ordered to
pay child support for the biological children of her former lesbian
partner, who has relied on welfare since the two split up.
In the second, a woman who years earlier had gotten a court order
- and birth certificate - declaring both herself and her partner to
be parents, was told she could not terminate her former partner's
Perhaps the most unusual case involved a couple in which one
woman donated an egg to her partner, who bore the twin children. At
the time of donation the woman, whose initials are K. M., signed a
form giving up parental rights, although both women cared for the
twins for six years.
Two dissenting judges in that opinion noted that ignoring the
release form might hold implications for other sperm and egg donors
who sign waivers believing they've relinquished their obligations. …