This ties in to my last post, and you might want to start there. That post discussed a recent case from Michigan involving a custody dispute between lesbian mothers. The court there concluded that both women were natural parents of the child.
Now this seems rather startling, although if you check the tag “natural parent” for this blog, you’ll see that similar things have been tossed around in the past. But essentially I think I have failed to properly examine the idea of natural parentage. I want to do that here.
It’s very tempting to say that natural parents are parents by virtue of nature itself and that law has nothing to do with it. Indeed, that is what the name suggests. But before making that assumption, you have to think about what it means when you say someone is a natural parent–what follows from that?
If all it means is that the person has a genetic connection to a child, then this is just a question of labelling and there’s nothing very interesting here. I could replace “has a genetic connection” with “is a natural parent” throughout the blog and nothing more would follow.
But the critical thing about being a natural parent is that it does matter, it does have consequences. In law, a natural parent is a type of legal parents. (It is often paired with another type of legal parent–an adoptive parent.) Thus, claiming to be a natural parent is a way to claim legal rights and responsibilities vis-a-vis a child.
In other words, “natural parent” is a legal category and as such, “natural parent” has a legal definition. As the Michigan case makes clear, the legal definition of “natural parent” is not simply “a person with a genetic connection.”
Consider the nearly universal presumption that the husband of a woman who gives birth is the legal father of the child. He does not need to take any particular legal action to claim parenthood. He automatically becomes a parent by virtue of the relationships described above. Thus, he is a natural parent.
I don’t think I’m just inventing this, by the way, although I am just seeing it in this light. In general, I think the husband is indeed within the category of “natural parent.” After all, he’s certainly not an adoptive parent and he is surely a parent. By process of elimination he must be a natural parent (in the eyes of the law). And that’s true even if he and his wife used ART so that we know for a fact he has no genetic connection to the child.
I think you could say that a natural parent is a person who has legal rights as a parent without the necessity of court proceedings of any kind. This contrasts with an adoptive parent, who becomes a parent only after court proceedings. So a natural parent is a legal parent automatically, simply because of the way things are. I can see how the term “natural parent” slips into use here–a natural parent is a parent because it is the nature of things, not because of the proclamations from a court. But this does not mean that the law does not itself define the circumstances under which one can lay claim to this type of parentage.
This seems a bit of a revelation to me, and perhaps it will all look different come the morning light. But I’ll leave it here for now.
, because I think I have not pressed hard on the question of what a natural parent is.