I have some hesitation about returning to the general topic of birth certificates as I know many people get quite wrought about it. But there’s a bunch of different stories out there on the topic so I’ll have a go on it. However, I want to try to set the stage first.
Birth certificates—at least in the US–are rather peculiar documents. Some of what is on them at least looks like a historical record. So for example, birth certificates routinely list the time of birth. That would seem to be in the nature of a historical record–a formal noting of a particular thing happening at a specific time and place. (Place is also in that category.)
But then there are some other things on birth certificates that, though they look like the stuff of historical records, aren’t. One–and the one that has been discussed the most extensively here–is “parents”–or as it sometimes appears “mother” and “father.” US birth certificates do not necessarily list the name of the woman who gave birth–which it seems to me would be the most obvious historical fact they might reflect.
Instead US birth certificates generally list the legal parents of a child. That means that if the child has been adopted, a new birth certificate is issued that lists the adoptive parents. Similarly if the woman who gives birth is married, her spouse (a legal parent by virtue of the presumption) will typically be listed as a parent.
Now this makes a number of people very unhappy. I think the general objection is that birth certificates should list the genetic parents of the child–they should in essence be something like a pedigree or a blood lineage certificate. That’s a perfectly plausible position–one can easily imagine a society where that is what birth certificates did. We can debate the merits of such a system.
But the key thing for me–right here right now–is that like it or not, this is not the current practice in the US. For better or worse, US birth certificates are meant to show legal parentage. You need to produce a birth certificate when you apply for a passport or register a child for school or for a new doctor or even for soccer because it shows the registrar that you are the legal parent of the child. We could change that. But for the rest of this post you all need to just take things as they currently are.
So to current events: Item 1. There’s a new case in Ohio in which same sex couples who were married in other states seek to have both parents listed on the birth certificates of their children. Now in fairness, there’s more going on here than just a birth certificate for some of these couples. There may also be demands to be recognized as legal parents. That’s a more complicated argument we could also discuss.
But Ohio is, I think, one of those states that will not put the names of two people of the same sex on a birth certificate, even if they are lawful adoptive parents of the child. (Louisiana is another such state and its position was the subject of litigation I followed for a long time a few years back.) At its simplest, there’s claim here is that if a state issues new birth certificates with two names on it for heterosexual married couples, it cannot refuse to issue new birth certificates with new names on it for lesbian or gay married couples. And given the US Supreme Court ruling in Windsor last June, this appears to me an awfully powerful claim. If you’re going to list legal parents, you cannot really pick and choose among that category.
Item 2. This is from Canada and Canadian law is both different and complicated. (Not to say US law is simple.) But still–here’s a story about the first child born in British Columbia who has three parents listed on the birth certificate. As in the US, it’s pretty clear that Canadian birth certificates are not simply documents that show who gave birth–though one of the people named did that. Neither do they simply show genetic lineage–though two of the three people could claim that.
Item 3. There’s a new federal statute that allows for the creation of a new birth certificate with a different date of birth. This is important for adopted kids whose original birth certificates can be off by several years. Remember that birth certificates are used when you are entering school? A birth date that makes you four when you are really six can keep you out of school. Again, it’s about what we use birth certificates for–you can imagine a different system.
I’ll close here. But with one more note about birth certificates. A number of states allow people to change the gender on a birth certificate. Here, too, that’s necessary because of the ways we use birth certificates in today’s world.