Parenthood By The Numbers

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.

7 responses to “Parenthood By The Numbers

  1. “by which I mean a model where genetics determines legal parental status”

    which as I’ve repeatedly pointed out to you is absolutely no one! No one thinks genetic parents should always be legal guardians, everyone acknowledges that unfit parents should have their children taken away and sometimes social parents and legal guardians are not the real parents. Where we differ is what should be recorded on the birth certificate, we think the real parents should be recorded as the mother and father on the birth certificate, but legal guardianship is their responsibility, not their right if they fail in their responsibility.

    As to this bill, it’d be easier to express if you used the word “legal guardian.” We could all understand that some children should have more than two people recognized as their legal guardians, perhaps a step-parent ought to be able to be legally recognized as a guardians sometimes, without having to get whoever is currently the second guardian to relinquish guardianship of their charge (though of course they should have to approve of the third guardian).

  2. “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.”

    But every situation is different, they aren’t all uniform situations. Judges should determine the best interest of the child (which should include their long term interest in a stable sustainable just society in which to have their own children, which would not be a lesbian fantasy world of women) and determine custody and visitation and support.

    And what’s with bouncing back and forth between “legal parent” and “mother” and “father”? Is “mother” the same as “female legal parent” in your mind? Does a someone become a “mother” or a “father” by virtue of being awarded legal guardianship, too? So when a father loses custody of a child due to committing a crime or something, he stops being the child’s father? I don’t think so. “Mother” and “Father” don’t have that legal meaning, do they? Are people declared “mother” when they are declared “legal parent”?

  3. When there is a 3rd recognized parent, is it not reasonable that he or she would need the the express permission of both the child’s parents? Where as being a step parent only requires permission of the one parent that you married?

    What benefit is there to a child to turn a step parent into a 3rd parent? Step parents are operating with the permission of their spouses, they have a legal obligation to provide support to their spouse’s child while married, they can claim the step child as a dependent on their taxes and as such the child can receive social security death benefits for surviving dependents. Health insurance etc is all available for step children, they cannot deny you neither can they deny you family leave act to care for a step child.

    Is the only benefit that if the spouse of the step parent died it would result in shared custody between the parent and step parent? Again this is something that it seems would have to be agreed upon by both parents. I’d say after the death of the child the widowed step parent could move to do a second parent adoption I see no reason for the second parent to be married to the remaining living parent but it would be unorthodox. I’d think that if the consent were there they could just work out legal guardianship.

    It definately should not be something that happens to the step parent without the consent of both parents and not without the consent of the step parent. You need to start with two people being obligated and the other person opting in. Their rights could never truly be equal to that of the parents because they are there at the parents descretion with their permission. Its a contract that it seems the parents would need a way out of if it was not working out. When parents dont want to raise their kids they can give them up for adoption but both have to agree so now all three would have to agree?

    If the step parent with full parental rights got divorced and was ordered to pay support and then got remarried the step parent’s new spouse would be on the hook for that kid’s support as well.

  4. I’m less opposed to adding parents than to deleting them. As long as the child’s right to their 2 genetic parents is intact and forever legally recognized then add all the adoptive and other types of parents you want – oh hey which brings me to the crux of the matter…this third parent we are talking about would need to adopt right? I mean they would not qualify to just be marshaled in without having to go through some sort of court approved procedure otherwise why bother having adoption procedures at all right we could just have genetic parents signing off line agreements and then saying they are enforceable which would make the child the object of a contract which is rather unseemly no?

  5. I oppose adding parents; because it just make things messy when the couples split up.
    I believe that stepparents and other primary caregivers should have more rights than they do now to continue a relationship once the marriage is over, like visitation and such.
    But they should not hold the status of parent.

  6. The problem is that the term “parent” is being used interchangeably with different categories of people. It is being used interchangeably with “legal guardian”, with “social parent” and with “genetic parent”. Then all these different categories of people fight over who gets to be called “parent” without any qualifiers. I think the term “parent” without any qualifiers is fine in the colloquial sense where one can determine from the context which kind of parent we are talking about. But the law needs to be less ambiguous. If the law was less ambiguous, then the law could allow the differentiation between “genetic parent” (limited to two, or three as you suggested with manipulation of mitochondrial DNA) and “legal guardian” (not limited to two, and not limited by relationship to other legal guardians). For example, many so-called single-mother families nowadays actually have mother + grandmother raising the child(ren). We could recognize the grandmother as a legal guardian in these cases rather than calling them single-mother families.

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