I’ve written in the past about questions arising out of the number of parents. As this article discusses, there’s a bill pending in the CA legislature that addresses this question and I’ve been meaning to flag it here for a while.
For those wedded to a genetic model of parenthood (by which I mean a model where genetics determines legal parental status) this must seem a bizarre discussion indeed. It’s perfectly clear that every child has two and only two genetic parents. (The prospect of manipulation of mitochondrial DNA does open the possibility of three parents, I suppose, but I’ll set that aside for now.)
But if one considers social parentage, there’s nothing so obvious about the number two. There are clearly many children who have one and only one parent and, to my mind just as clearly, there are many children who have three parents.
There are two different common paths to the three (or perhaps even four) parent model. First, suppose a heterosexual couple (M and F) have a child. They split and share custody. Then one or both of them repartners–so now child lives in two households–one with M and X and the other with F and Y. It’s quite possible that either or both of X and Y may play a parental role in a child’s life. Perhaps it is most possible in those cases where a child lives the vast majority of time in one household–say the M/X household, though it could just as well be the F/Y household.
X or Y is, of course, technically a step-parent. But some (not all) step-parents are sufficiently involved and committed that they function as parents. Sometimes everyone–the child and the other two parents–treat them as parents.
The other common situation is where a lesbian couple uses sperm from a male friend to create their child. While sometimes the intention and the practice is that the man is an uncle, sometimes he functions as a parent. In that case, he is a third-parent and (if he’s partnered himself) there may even be a fourth parent.
While I don’t know how common these circumstances are, they do occur and in individual instances, courts can be sympathetic to those involved. After all, if all the adults agree that parental rights should be shared among three rather than two individuals, it’s hard to see why a judge should say “no.” Remember that I’m thinking here of situations where the social reality of the child’s life already includes three parental figures so what the law does is to recognize existing relationships. No court compels the creation of three-parent families nor does the CA statute propose to do so.
But what we’ve seen in the past is individual responses by particular judges to specific situations. That’s quite different from legislative action, which creates a uniform practice available to all who meet the requirements.
It’s striking to me that the opposition to the bill ties it back to access to marriage for same sex couples. It’s true that the proposed law (and any recognition of three-legal-parent families) does separate legal parentage from genetic parentage. It’s also true that an attachment to genetic parentage as a determinate of legal parentage will ensure that children do not have two mothers or two fathers. You could also state the inverse proposition–two mother or two father families can only exist when parentage is defined in ways beyond genetics.
I think this can help us understand the political controversy around the bill. But it also may obscure the strongest arguments in favor of this kind of flexibility: There are real children who live their lives with three parental figures. The law should recognize and protect those relationships for exactly the same reasons it should recognize and protect any parent/child relationships–because it is better for the children.