- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2007


There will be talk of a slippery slope to Gomorrah in the wake of an unprecedented Harrisburg, Pa., court ruling. The April child-custody and child-support ruling held that a child can have three “parents” in the eyes of the law who are liable for child support. But the specifics of the case are unusual enough that there is no reason here to sound the polygamy alarms. Rather than some ominous harbinger, the case is more a reminder of why the nuclear family matters and what happens when it is disregarded.

It concerns two lesbian guardians who are separating, with a deceased sperm-donor father who was a friend of one of the women and was actively involved in the children’s lives. (They called him “Papa.”) About the only lesson here is that the courts should take whatever steps they can to avoid hastening the nuclear family’s demise. It has held up well enough over 7,000 years of recorded history.

Here is a sense of the complications in this case, for which no obvious answer emerges. Back in April, the panel ruled that the two legal guardians, a lesbian couple, plus the sperm-donor father would be liable for child support. Lawyers for the biological father of two of the four children unsuccessfully argued that only two adults can be liable in a child-custody case.

The father had provided financial assistance voluntarily and was present at one of the births — the two children knew that he was their biological father — but he opposed obligatory child support. The sperm donation was “informal,” which is to say that it was conducted in private and not through a service. The donor died suddenly of a stroke in March. The other two children were nieces of one of the women; only one of the women adopted them. The couple had entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2002. They separated in early 2006. Considering all this, in a legal environment like Pennsylvania’s, which unlike two-thirds of states does not have laws protecting sperm donors from being forced to assume parental responsibilities, the conditions for a most unusual situation were present.

The conflicting conditions under which a child would need to be raised between potentially three households — that’s what would have come to pass in this situation had the biological father not died unexpectedly — practically make the argument against a tripartite parenting structure with complete parenting rights and responsibilities for three parties. Those who aren’t persuaded by tradition should be able to understand the concern, as family scholar Elizabeth Marquardt put it this week in a thoughtful Op-Ed in the New York Times: “[H]ow many homes should children travel between to satisfy the parenting needs of many adults?” In such a situation, the usual paramount concern for the child’s welfare seems to be at war with the wishes of the adults. At some point, the issue ceases being about the child’s welfare, and starts being principally about the adults.

The Pennsylvania ruling certainly will not be the last word on the subject of three or more “parents” in a family. As this case shows, however, there are good, practical reasons, as well as reasons of tradition, why the two-parent, nuclear family has endured, should be valued and reinforced legally, economically and culturally.

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