I wanted to pick up on a terminology thread I started a little while back. You might want to go read it or skim it or remind yourself of it. The basic idea is that the term “parent” is often accompanied by a variety of modifiers and understanding the different modifiers and how they relate to each other is important to the conversation here.
Remember the core purpose of this blog: I’m concerned about how we define legal parent. I take it as a given that the category of “legal parent” exists. A legal parent is the person who has all sorts of rights and obligations vis-a-vis the child. So, for instance, who decides whether a child is raised with or without religious training? The legal parent or parents. Who decides on what sorts of non-emergency medical care will be provided? The legal parent or parents. Who decides where the child will live and go to school? The legal parent or parents. It’s possible to imagine a world without legal parents–perhaps one where some state bureaucracy dictates these choices for the child–but that’s not my task here.
So then the question is who gets recognized as a legal parent? What are the rules that tell you which people are legal parents? The answer to this question turns out to be complicated. We have had (and have in place now) a series of rather complicated rules for who gets to be a legal parent.
Last time I left the term “natural parent” aside. That’s what I want to return to here. I think many people use the term “natural parent” to mean “genetic parent.” If you look for a dictionary definition I think that’s probably what you’ll find. I think I assumed that was what it meant myself when I started to think about all this.
But I think that is incorrect as a matter of law. What I mean by that is that “natural parent” has a legal meaning and it isn’t the same as genetic parent.
Let’s go back to the all-important concept of “legal parent.” An adoptive parent is clearly a legal parent. Indeed, I think you could say that adoption is a formal legal process by which one becomes a legal parent. So all adoptive parents are legal parents.
But of course, not all legal parents are adoptive parents. Adoptive parents are only a small subset of legal parents. And here is the surprising thing: All those other legal parents–the non-adoptive legal parents–they are considered to be natural parents. That is actually the way the term “natural parent” is generally used in law. It’s the label given to non-adoptive legal parents. You can see this in the New Mexico case that was discussed here not so long ago. Any legal parent who is not an adoptive parent is, by definition, a natural parent.
As used in law, natural parents are people who do not have to go through a formal legal process (adoption) to become legal parents. So a woman who gives birth to a child is a natural parent because her status as a legal parent is established by giving birth. A man married to that woman is a natural parent because his legal status as a parent is established by his relationship to the woman who gave birth–no adoption is necessary. An unmarried man who holds a child out as his own is a natural parent because his status as a legal parent is established in the holding out–not in anything like the formal process of adoption. A de facto parent is also a natural parent.
I can sort of see how the word “natural” came to take on this meaning–it is legal parenthood that just happens as opposed to that which is formally conferred. But I can also see this as a source of a lot of confusion. For instance, just as all adoptive parents are legal parents, so all natural parents are legal parents. But because so many people equate “natural parents” with “genetic parents” (or the to my mind really fuzzy and ill-defined category “biological parents”) you might move from the first statement to a second one–that all genetic parents are legal parents. That’s not a true statement. (I mean this as a descriptive statement, not a normative one.)
You might also assume that if you can prove that someone is not a genetic parent then it means they are not a natural parent–but that’s not true, either. You only to look at the New Mexico case (among others) to see that. Chatterjee is not a genetic parent and she is, in terms of law, a natural parent.
What I want to emphasize is that the common meaning given to “natural parent” isn’t the same as the legal meaning. This is bound to cause confusion, but I’m not quite sure what to do about it. Perhaps the best I can do is to only use the legal definition myself and try to be as clear as possible about how this all fits together.