I’m still following my earlier thread (and still writing off-line, so not really able to add the links I’d like.) The last post on this topic spelled out at least one main difference between the test for parentage adopted by an Oregon court and that adopted by the DC legislature. While both tests will clearly benefit lesbian couples raising kids, the DC test is more expansive and will apply to others as well. (If you look back to that post, check out that Venn diagram. The additional people covered by the DC test are those in that outer ring.)
Having laid all this groundwork, I want to consider an underlying question. Is there any reason why parents need to be (or need to have been) romantic partners? One major feature of the DC statute is that it allows people who have not been married or partnered or civilly united or romantic partners in any way to become co-parents.
Before I go on, I want to be sure this point is clear. In DC, if two sisters decided to raise a child together, beginning by one becoming pregnant via assisted insemination, as long as the non-pregnant sister agreed to the process properly, the statutory scheme would recognize them as legal co-parents from the birth of the child. Same idea if it was two good friends—two women or a woman and a man. (There’s an interesting side point here—there needs to be at least one woman. It could not be two men. That’s a topic for another time.)
Anyway, perhaps the way to begin is to flip the question around: Why do we generally assume that parents need to be (or at least, need to have been) partners, so that allowing non-partnered parents seems quite novel. Even if you accept the number two, why won’t any two agreeable adults do?
The answer, I think, has something to do with the power of the cultural norms, norms we may not even think about or consciously accept. Many of us, if we are asked to imagine “family with kids” first imagine mom/dad/two kids and so on. That is, of course, the classic nuclear family which many of us know full well was never quite so dominant as we tell ourselves it was. (Check out Stephanie Coontz’ wonderful book, The Way We Never Were.) But even if we know it isn’t/wasn’t the standard, it’s a very powerful cultural image.
Not coincidentally, this also seems to be a natural sort of arrangement. After all, you need both the man and woman to conceive the child. And the resulting infant is so helpless that the woman needs the man to take care of her and the child (the woman being naturally inclined to that role anyway). And while the man’s ideal reproductive strategy might be to get a lot of women pregnant, he also needs to insure that his offspring survive, which gives him a reason to hang around and help out. But first, he needs to be sure it is his offspring, and so he needs to ensure that the woman, at least, is monogamous. And there you have it—the nuclear family. It’s only natural. (But please do go elsewhere on the blog to review my mounting skepticism about appeals to nature.)
Other family forms have become acceptable because they are like the standard model. So two committed lesbians are enough like the heterosexual married couple that at least some will recognize their families, too. They are a couple, after all.
Of course, two women cannot conceive all on their own—sperm needs to come from somewhere. Maybe because heterosexual couples also frequently resort to assisted reproduction of one form or another, that variation is increasingly accepted. But the bonded pair remains a requirement.
While this might be a historically/culturally plausible explanation of the requirement of the couple at the core of the family, but it isn’t actually a justification for it. The assumption that co-parents need to be (or have been) a couple is so deeply embedded it’s rarely questioned. And the requirement has real costs—it’s part of why single parents are frowned upon, I think. I think it’s worth considering whether it really can be justified independently. A good task for the next post, perhaps.