How many parents can (should) a child have?

My family spent last evening with South Carolina adoption guru James Fletcher Thompson.  James regaled us with stories of the latest trends in assisted reproduction technology.  Evidently even South Carolina is starting to allow not just gay parents to adopt but is even allowing same sex couple adoption (meaning some children have two legal mothers or two legal fathers).  Couples are raising children who have been gestated by a third party or in which only one partner has a biological connection with a child who was conceived through a donor egg or sperm.  Our culture is slowly moving from one in which being a legal parent almost always meant being the biological parent of a child conceived through sexual intercourse to one in which being a parent is increasingly based upon the establishment of a legal relationship in which one agrees to assume responsibility for raising a child in return for which the state grants one legal authority over the child.

This makes the timing of today’s New York Times piece, “Measure Opens Door to Three Parents, or Four,” particularly fascinating.  Evidently courts in a few states have authorized adoptions allowing a child to have three or even four parents.  Delaware and the District of Columbia have passed laws that allow for third “de facto parents,” who have the same rights and responsibilities toward their children as adoptive parents.  California is considering a similar measure.

The article focuses upon two examples in which a child has more than two caregivers assuming a role as parents.  These families demonstrate the type of situations in which caregivers may wish for a child to have more than two legal parents.  One example was of two married homosexual couples, one gay and one lesbian, raising two daughters together.  These children are biologically related to one of the gay men but the lesbians are these girls’ legal parents.  The other example was a child who was adopted by her stepfather without terminating the parental rights of her biological father.

The desire of these parents to allow a legally-recognized parent-child relationship with more than two people has both emotional and practical bases.  Folks willing to commit to parenting a child–as all four of the “parents” in the two homosexual couples appear to have done–naturally want the law to recognize that relationship and give them the rights that stem from being a legal parent.  These parents further argue that allowing a child to have more than two legal parents reduces the risk that the child will end up in foster care if a parent dies or becomes unable to care for the child.  As the biological father of the girls explains, “This would be the final piece, so we don’t have to worry if something happens to the legal parents or if I am out with the kids and something happens.  Legally, they could just take my kids and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

The article also interviews the child, now age 20, who was adopted by her stepfather without her biological father’s parental rights being terminated.  She tells The Times, “If it were a choice between dropping my dad to be replaced by my stepdad, I would not have been open to it, but with a joint adoption you don’t have to battle about who is going to be Mom and who is going to be Dad. You can have a situation where everyone is happy and part of the family.”

One can easily imagine social conservatives going apoplectic, and perhaps apocalyptic, at the idea of children having more than two legal parents.  I have long supported same sex marriage and same sex couple adoption, yet the idea of children having more than two legal parents gives me the same sort of discomfort that the concept of legalized polygamy gives me.  The parade of horribles that social conservatives predict(ed) from allowing gay marriage or same sex adoption struck me as merely hysterical: they didn’t expand the concept of marriage or adoptive parenting so much as expand the number of potential beneficiaries of marriage or adoption.  But just as polygamy adds more inter-personal complications to the marital relationship, allowing children to have more than two parents adds these complications to the parent-child relationship.  Contested custody and visitation battles are plenty divisive when a child’s time and caretaking has to be divided between two people.  Contested custody litigation involving three, four or more parents is geometrically more complex.

Yet, as the parents and the adult child interviewed in this article demonstrate, a child’s life can sometimes be improved by having more than two caregivers willing to take on the commitment of parenting.  With our legal culture increasingly determining that mere adherence to tradition is no reason to prevent folks from redefining relationships to suit their purposes, allowing children to sometimes have more than two parents has some appeal.  Once this trend starts it’s hard to see what might stop it.  I suspect we are entering an era when some children will indeed have more than two legal parents.


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