In the News: What Is a Family? CA Approves Multiple-Parent Bill

We read in yesterday’s First Thoughts that California lawmakers have passed a new law.  Senate Bill 1476 will allow courts to recognize that “a child may have a parent and child relationship with more than 2 parents.”

This bill came about from a complicated family situation.  In In re M.C., a child had been put into the foster system.  Neither the biological mother, nor the mother’s new partner, could or would care for the child.  But the child’s biological father was not legally her parent, so the child could not be given to his care.

The arguments for and against the new law provide an illuminating glimpse into culture-war positions about the meanings of traditional families.  Supporters of the law claim that such laws simply move the courts into balance with the messy realities of our contemporary society.  Bill sponsor Mark Leno (D-San Fran) stated, “We live in a world today where courts are dealing with diverse circumstances  that have reshaped California families.”  Similarly, an LA Times editorial in favor of the law opened with this gambit: “For better or worse, families have changed.”

Opponents of the law have articulated some of the reasons often given in Fundamentalist America for supporting traditional family structures.  Writing in the Huffington Post, John Culhane and Elizabeth Marquardt argued that the new law will open a Pandora’s Box of unintended, but predictable, consequences.  “The ‘rule of two,'” they noted,

“for assigning legal parenthood has rarely been breached, for good reason. Again, consider In Re M.C.. Reunification is always challenging; here, it is unlikely to succeed with anyone except (possibly) the biological father. Is it really wise to deploy already-strained government resources toward three parents? And what if, in another case, reunification with all three parents were achieved?

“The problems would then multiply. It is hard enough for even two parents to agree on how to raise a child. Three parents in conflict would be still worse. Constant judicial involvement in decision-making would be the unintended but entirely predictable consequence. If there were a custody battle, the child might end up being shuttled between all of them. In fact, a Pennsylvania court has ordered custody to be shared among three legal parents.

“And why stop at three? Senator Leno’s bill places no limit on the number of possible parents. If three’s a crowd, four or more is a mob.”

Along the same lines, according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle, California Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) complained, “This smacks of the state redefining parenthood.  What’s next? Are we going to parent by committee?”

For conservatives, the primary danger seems to come from state intervention into private family structures.  Those structures, many conservatives believe, have precedence to the state and ought to be immune to state meddling.  For religious conservatives, this is often articulated as a notion that God created the traditional two-heterosexual-parent family.  Human governments ought only to support what God has created.

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