Monday, July 16, 2007

The Next "Family Values" Debate--Three Legal Parents

Elizabeth Marquardt discusses what could very well be the next family values debate on the horizon--multiple legal parents.
SOMETIMES when the earth shudders it doesn’t make a sound. That’s what happened in Harrisburg, Pa., recently.

On April 30, a state Superior Court panel ruled that a child can have three legal parents. The case, Jacob v. Shultz-Jacob, involved two lesbians who were the legal co-parents of two children conceived with sperm donated by a friend. The panel held that the sperm donor and both women were all liable for child support. Arthur S. Leonard, a professor at New York Law School, observed, “I’m unaware of any other state appellate court that has found that a child has, simultaneously, three adults who are financially obligated to the child’s support and are also entitled to visitation.”
The Pennsylvania case invovled a lesbian couple who had not one but two children with the help of a donated sperm from a friend. Now the lesbian couple are separated and the sperm donor is being forced, against his will, to provide child support. While Pennsylvania is the first American jurisdiction to create a triad of parents legally responsible for a child, it is not the first Western nation to do so. The PA case followed a Canadian case with slighly more rosy facts and
The idea of assigning children three legal parents is not limited to North America. In 2005, expert commissions in Australia and New Zealand proposed that sperm or egg donors be allowed to “opt in” as a child’s third parent. That same year, scientists in Britain received state permission to create an embryo from the DNA of three adults, raising the real possibility that they all could be granted equal legal claims to the child if the embryo developed to term.
Under the best of circumstances, the legal implications have not been fully thought out. But in reality, almost no one has really thought of the consequences. Marquardt writes:
What is the harm if other American courts follow Pennsylvania’s example? For one thing, three-parent situations typically involve a couple and a third person living separately, meaning the child will get shuffled between homes, and this raises problems.

A few years ago, along with Norval Glenn, a sociologist at the University of Texas, I compiled the first nationwide study of children who grow up in so-called “good” divorces — that is, families in which both divorced parents stay involved in the child’s life and control their own conflict. We found that even these children must grow up traveling between two worlds, having to make sense on their own of the different values, beliefs and ways of living they find in each home. They have to grow up too soon. When a court assigns a child several parents, some of whom never intend to share a home, they consign that child, at best, to a “good” divorce situation.

Of course, sometimes the three adults might want to live together, which leads to a different set of concerns. As one advocate of polygamy argued in Newsweek, “If Heather can have two mommies, she should also be able to have two mommies and a daddy.” If more children are granted three legal parents, what is our rationale for denying these families the rights and protections of marriage? America, get ready for the group-marriage debate.

And these are merely the worries if the three parents cooperate. But, as the Pennsylvania case shows, they may not. Conflicts will undoubtedly arise when three parents confront the sticky, conflict-ridden reality of child-raising, often leading to a nasty, three-way custody battle. Even if they part amicably, they may still want to live in three different homes. In that case, how many homes should children travel between to satisfy the parenting needs of many adults?
What a mess!

What is likely to happen is that the child will become "property" over which there is a fight and the more people with legal responsiblity comes more people with legal rights to assert. But a child is not a favority DVD or a family heirloom or a treasured momento of vacation. The child is a person and if the triad or more of parents can't make a decision, then the courts need to and they need to think first of the child and what their life will be like when three people, no longer committed to each other, want to have a committed "relationship" with a child.

1 comment:

Jimmy said...

As have many commentators, Ms. Marquardt left out of her column the fact that the donor was granted shared legal and physical custody of the kids when the lesbian couple split up. The real lesson from the case was that if you are going to share custody of a child, you also must help to support that child. Check out my blog entry of May 12 at