Baby and Mommy and Mommy and Daddy

Baby and Mommy and Mommy and Daddy July 3, 2012

Hey! You with the hands! Can I see your papers?

Rod Dreher is upset about a bill in California that would allow a child to have more than two parents in the eyes of the law.  (The double indent is Dreher quoting an article, followed by his comment in normal blockquote formatting).

State Sen. Mark Leno is pushing legislation to allow a child to have multiple parents.

“The bill brings California into the 21st century, recognizing that there are more than Ozzie and Harriet families today,” the San Francisco Democrat said.

…SB 1476 stemmed from an appellate court case last year involving a child’s biological mother, her same-sex partner, and a man who had an affair with the biological mother and impregnated her while she was separated temporarily from her female lover.

This is an attempt to accommodate the radical irregularities in modern childbearing practices (surrogacy, etc.). What would this law teach us? That there is no such thing as the natural family — that family is whatever we say it is. Or, as Barbara Bush witlessly put it to the GOP Convention in 1992, “However you define family, that’s what we mean by family values.”

I think Dreher is too dogmatic in expecting civil law to conform to biology.  Law shapes and reflects culture, it’s true, but it’s also used as a kind of bureaucratic shorthand.  Being able to walk into a hospital and identify as a ‘parent’ will get you into the room of your child and empowered to make medical decisions much faster than trying to explain that you’re the egg donor and domestic partner of the mother of the patient.

In these cases, the law is recognizing a relationship that already exists, and is fitting it into the likeliest looking niche.  But the law moves slowly, so we’re often stuck using old categories that are redolent of a tradition that’s no longer universal (or perhaps never was).  It would be easier for the law to recognize civil unions and leave marriage to churches and communities.  It would be simpler for the state to recognize guardians — the person(s) who has legal responsibility for the child, and leave it to a community or a family whether that authority is restricted to biological parents, shared across a blended family, incorporates extended family, or even something more exotic, like vowed friendship.

I don’t think this category of guardianship is in danger of becoming contentless.  Although it is not rooted in biology, the obligation of the strong to the weak and of experience to innocence seems worth celebrating and setting off as special, in all of its various incarnations.  It’s up to a community and tradition to keep their particular instantiation of this virtue fiercely attractive.

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Of course, there’s one institution that signed on to the idea of more than two parents quite some time ago: college financial aid offices are notorious for counting all the assets of all four parents against the demonstrated scholarship need of a student, regardless of how much support and contact the original parents have kept up after the split.

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