The last post about step-parents (which lead to lengthy discussions of genetic parents, psychological parents and legal parents) raises some important questions about why we (or I?) need all these different categories. What’s wrong with the unmodified “parent?” Why spend so much time working out what we (mutually or individually) mean by step-parent? Some of this may be a bit of a recap, but I find that I refine/change views over time and so perhaps it’s useful even if you’ve been reading for a while.
It should be most obvious that for purposes of this blog “legal parent” is the all important central organizing category. My whole point here is to explore the ways in which the law operates to recognize/create legal parents. And it should be clear that legal parents are at the very least recognized by law–but I think they’re actually created. Until you have laws there are no legal parents. Law calls them into being, as it were–it makes them.
For instance , a woman may give birth to a child she has conceived through intercourse. The child is genetically related to her–it is her genetic offspring. The law recognizes her as a legal parent and thus, on top of all those things, she can claim legal rights. If the law didn’t recognize her as a legal parent, then she wouldn’t be one–all those other indicia not withstanding. Now one might be very unhappy about a legal system that did not recognize her as a legal parent, but that wouldn’t make her into a legal parent. That’s just a critique of the law.
Anyway, perhaps that is all obvious. And to return to the point, the question for me is who gets to be in that category–legal parent.
The rest of the categories are invoked, I think, as ways of organizing groups of people, perhaps with an eye towards drawing lines, but not always. And to some extent the problem is that we use these other categorical terms quite a bit in speech, but sometimes not very precisely or not, perhaps with perfect agreement.
Take step-parent. This all came up because in the comments on an earlier post, someone labeled Jonathan Sporn a step-parent. Sporn and his girlfriend used ART with sperm from an anonymous donor so that she could get pregnant and give birth to the child with the plan that they would both raise the child. (I think this is a fair summary of the facts as reported.) They were not married.
Under these circumstances I wouldn’t call Sporn a step-parent but some people do call him that–which means we are operating with different definitions. It’s not so much that one of us must be right and the other wrong–I’m not sure there is right and wrong here. It’s more that meaningful communications can break down–because one of us will say something about step-parents and the other will interpret it as being something other than what was meant. There are two ways forward–agree on a single definition or go forward with multiple (ideally only two, but who can say?) definitions and be clear about what the differences are. Which means you end up spending a bunch of time talking about what categories me.
You also need to talk about why–and you can see that I talked about the rationale behind my definition of step-parent. That’s important because it’s allows others to apply my definition to new cases that come up that aren’t quite like the ones we already talked about–and there seem to be an endless supply of those.
Finally, there’s the question of how the categories relate to each other. So for example, some people would like a rule that all genetic parents are necessarily recognized as legal parents. (Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that all legal parents are genetic parents–you can still have adoptive parents, who are also legal parents even though they aren’t genetic parents.) I would not pick to have such a rule. Instead I’d say that some genetic parents are legal parent and other genetic parents are not legal parents and knowing that a person is a genetic parent doesn’t tell you anything about whether they are also a legal parent.
Maybe there is a way to do this without all the category names and the accompanying confusion, but I’m not sure what it is. I know it is tedious and I’m not even sure where we end up–we don’t, in the end, have an agreed upon definition of step-parent. But perhaps we know a little bit more about what we mean.
There’s one very specific reason why I in particular need to have that idea of step-parent, I think. I will try to write about this next time (which shouldn’t be too long from now.) Basically the de facto parent rule I have in mind works okay for step-parents, I think–at least the way I’d apply it. But it has some problems in those instances where there is a second original parent–a person like Sporn, in fact. So I need to separate out those cases when I think about them.
More to follow.