Recording families at birth
Two years ago, The Legal Genealogist wrote about a New Jersey court case in which the question of the hour was, who were the legal parents of a child born in what most would regard as an unconventional way?
Here were the facts:
Husband and Wife can’t have a child naturally because Wife can’t carry a child to term. Husband and Wife secure an ovum from Donor, who is anonymous, and the ovum is fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization using Husband’s sperm. Husband and Wife contract with Gestational Carrier, who agrees to have the ovum implanted, carry the ovum to term and give birth, and to give up all rights to the child. Child is born, Gestational Carrier signs the required court papers relinquishing any parental rights she may have, and Child goes home with Husband and Wife, with a birth certificate reflecting Husband as father and Wife as mother.1
The case, In re T.J.S.,2 didn’t pit Husband and Wife against Gestational Carrier. And it didn’t pit Husband and Wife against Donor either.
No, the adversary who faced off against Husband and Wife was the New Jersey State Registrar of Vital Statistics — and the State’s argument was that Wife shouldn’t be listed as the mother of Child on Child’s birth certificate without going through the formality of an adoption.
Never mind that an infertile man could and can be listed as the father on a birth certificate merely by consenting in advance to the fertilization of his wife’s egg with the sperm of an anonymous donor. The Registrar thought that the infertile woman who consented to the use of her husband’s sperm to fertilize the egg of an anonymous donor had to go through a full formal adoption.
Both the trial and the intermediate appeals courts in New Jersey ruled that the language of the state statute involved meant the Registrar was right. And the state Supreme Court — understrength due to political wrangling3 — split right down the middle. In New Jersey, that means the lower court decision stands: Mom had to adopt the child to be legally Mom.
The case got me thinking, particularly about non-traditional families and how they will be treated by the law, recorded in the records we as genealogists associate with families — and documented in our software and databases. The position I ultimately took was that:
As genealogists we don’t have the luxury of punting. It’s our job to record, accurately and completely, the facts that constitute a family. And today, a family may not have Mom and Dad at all. It could well be Mom and Mom, or Dad and Dad. All of these, traditional and otherwise, are families that we must learn to document well. Along the way, our tools, our thought processes, even our hearts may need to change. But we cannot be faithful to the task we’ve undertaken if we fail to understand — or refuse to admit — that family is so much more than just bloodlines.4
After all, the Board for Certification of Genealogists, from which I hold my certified genealogist credentials and which I serve as a trustee, defines genealogy this way:
Genealogy is the study of families in genetic and historical context. It is the study of communities, in which kinship networks weave the fabric of economic, political, and social life. It is the study of family structures and the changing roles of men, women, and children in diverse cultures. It is biography, reconstructing each human life across place and time. Genealogy is the story of who we are and how we came to be, as individuals and societies.5
So I was particularly interested when, earlier this week, from reader Sean Vanderfluit of Canada came “not so much a question, but a bit of news you might find interesting. In my province, British Columbia, the law has been updated to recognize changes in parenting and non-traditional families. You can now have more than two parents listed on a Birth Registration, and the first such registration just occurred last week.”
The child in question was born to lesbian parents with the assistance of a sperm donor, but not an anonymous donor. Instead, the mothers wanted a man who would be involved as a father in the child’s life. A male friend agreed, and when the child was born, both women and the man were listed as parents on the birth registration.6
Now I’m not going to get into any discussion of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. That’s no longer the point. The Brave New World is here, like it or not.
The question is, what are we as genealogists going to do about it? And how will our software and databases respond to the decisions we make?
My own genealogical software, The Master Genealogist from Wholly Genes, will let me add as many people in as many relationships to the child as I wish — and I can name those relationships the way I want (not the way that, for example, the New Jersey Registrar of Vital Statistics might suggest).
Reporting can be a challenge, since there’s still an assumption that a person has two parents, and getting more than two to appear in a particular report requires some effort.
So… how are YOU dealing with this? And how does YOUR software respond to the challenge of the non-traditional in our families?
- Judy G. Russell, “Who’s your Mommy?,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 2 March 2012 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed 13 Feb 2014). ↩
- In re T.J.S., 212 N.J. 334 (2012), affirming by an equally divided court 419 N.J. Super. 46 (App. Div. 2010). ↩
- Do not get me started on the use of the courts as political footballs… ↩
- Judy G. Russell, 12 October 2013, address to American Society of Genealogists, Salt Lake City. ↩
- “Genealogy,” Board for Certification of Genealogists homepage (http://www.bcgcertification.org/ : accessed 14 Feb 2013). With a tip of the hat to my mentor and colleague Elizabeth Shown Mills, who posted the graphic with this very definition on Facebook today. ↩
- Catherine Rolfson, “Della Wolf is B.C.’s 1st child with 3 parents on birth certificate,” CBCNews, posted 6 Feb 2014 (http://www.cbc.ca/ : accessed 13 Feb 2014). ↩