One of the many forms of parentage I’ve discussed here is “natural parentage.” That’s often paired with “adoptive parentage” in law. The common understanding of this, I think, is that there are two paths to parenthood–one by action of law (that would be adoption) and the other by action of nature. But here’s a story about a case that demonstrates that law creates natural parents as well as adoptive parents. (I cannot find a reliable link to an on-line version of the actual court opinion. Sorry about that.)
This is one of the string of intra-lesbian custody disputes where one lesbian mother asserts the other is a stranger to the children involved. You can find a bunch of them on my blog, I’m afraid, as it’s not as uncommon as I could wish.
Renee Harmon and Tammy Davis began a relationship some time in 1989. During the relationship Davis had three children, conceived via assisted insemination with sperm from and anonymous provider. The children were born in 1999 and 2002 (twins).
There’s a dispute over the extent to which the decision to have children was a joint decision–Harmon says it was while Davis asserts that Harmon merely acquiesced in Davis’ decision. But it is undisputed that Harmon was present at the births and cut the umbilical cords. Harmon also asserts that the two women jointly chose names for the children and agreed on godparents and baptism, and Davis does not dispute these assertions. Harmon also asserts that Davis returned to work after the birth of the twins while Harmon became the stay-at-home parent. Again, it appears that Davis does not dispute this (although I don’t think she admits it either–I think she is silent on this point.)
There would be no case if the parties relationship hadn’t fallen apart,which it did in 2008. Initially the parties entered into an agreement to share parenting time. But their relationship continued to deteriorate and Davis eventually terminated Harmon’s time with the kids.
Davis is clearly a legal parent, by virtue of having given birth to the children with whom she also has a genetic relationship. The question here, as is typical in these cases, is whether Harmon has any rights at all. Initially the court concludes that Harmon has no rights as a third-party. (She’s not a guardian, for example.)
The court then turns to the question of whether Harmon might be a parent. In Michigan a parent is defined as “the natural or adoptive parent of the child.” There’s no adoption here, so the only question is whether Harmon is a natural parent of the children.
The court concludes that Harmon can be considered a natural parent if the court finds there was an agreement to raise the children together. (I would imagine that given the period of time during which the women cohabited after the birth of the children, it will be possible to prove the existence of such an agreement.)
The court recognizes that the initial meaning given to “natural parent” is tied to biological relatedness. But it notes that Michigan has extended the status of natural parent to people who have no genetic connection to the child. The court relies on the following quotation from an earlier Michigan case:
“a husband who is not the biological father of a child born or conceived during the marriage may be considered the natural father of that child where (1) the husband and the child mutually acknowledge a relationship as father and child, or the mother of the child has cooperated in the development of such a relationship over a period of time ….(2) the husband desires to have the rights afforded a parent and (3) the husband is willing to take on the responsibility of paying child support.
In many ways the the court’s reasoning is similar to that used in a couple of other cases I’ve written about before–bodies of law intended to confer parenthood on men are referred to in order to confer parenthood on lesbian partners.
What this opinion demonstrates–quite powerfully–is that the legal meaning of “natural parent” is not the same as the common meaning of “natural parent.” Harmon may be legally deemed to be a natural parent.
This means that “adoptive parent” and “natural parent” are both legal constructs. Neither is created by nature. The critical distinction is that one becomes a natural parent without engaging in legal proceedings while to become an adoptive parent one must engage in legal proceedings. That’s a rather striking idea.