When 3 Really Is a Crowd
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 case follows a similar decision handed down by a provincial court in Ontario in January. In what appeared to be the first such ruling in any Western nation, the court ruled that a boy can legally have three parents. In that case the biological mother and father had parental rights and wished for the biological mother’s lesbian partner, who functions as the boy’s second mother, to have such rights as well.
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.
Astonishingly, few legal experts, politicians or social commentators have considered the enormous risks these rulings and proposals pose for children. Those who have noticed tend to say they are nothing new, because many children already grow up with several parent figures. But this fails to recognize that stepchildren and adopted children still have only two legal parents.
Supporters of the rulings argue that if two parents are good for children, aren’t three better? True, some three-parent petitions are brought by adults who appear deeply committed to the child in question. In the Ontario case, the two women and the father all seem devoted to the boy. But in Pennsylvania, the sperm donor, whom the children called “Papa,” was ordered to pay child support over his objections, and the lesbian co-mothers have already ended their relationship.
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?
Finally, why should courts stop at assigning children only three parents? Some situations involve a couple who wants the child, the sperm donor, the egg donor and the gestational surrogate who carries the pregnancy. If we allow three legal parents, why not five?
Fortunate children have many people who love them as much as their parents do. But in the best interests of children, no court should break open the rule of two when assigning legal parenthood.