Waldlaw Blog

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Who's Your Daddy?

A colleague forwarded me an article this week which she read in the legal press. Here's the headline and the beginning of the article: Teen Sues Mother for ID of Father by Tresa Baldas "In a case that family law experts fear could set a dangerous precedent, a Michigan teenager is suing his mother to learn the identity of his father. "Family law attorneys say the issue of compelling a mother to reveal the identity of the biological father is a new area of law. And depending on how the Michigan judge rules in the case, they say, courts nationally could see a new flood of lawsuits of children suing their parents." The facts of the case, briefly, are that a married woman gave birth to a child, and everyone assumed that her husband was the father. The couple subsequently divorced, and the husband was required to pay child support. He eventually sued to be relieved of his child support obligations after two DNA tests suggested that he wasn't actually the child's biological father. The court said "fuggedaboudit" -- or, in more legal terms, "the court rejected his claim, saying it didn't matter whether he was the biological father. He had raised the child, was deemed to be the legal parent and the payments would have to continue." Two years later, the son sued the mother with the ex-husband's encouragement and support. So is this case about children's rights to know their genetic heritages, or is this a manipulative move by a man trying to get out of paying child support?? And what are the repurcussions of a ruling in either direction?? I am aware of two cases -- one in California and one in Massachusetts -- where children have sued sperm banks to force disclosure of the identity of their genetic fathers. In the California case, the lawsuit came about when it was discovered that the child suffered from a major medical condition that was believed to be genetic in origin. The court ordered the sperm bank to obtain a deposition from the donor on all relevant medical issues without disclosing the donor's identity. The Massachusetts case raises similar issues, and we are hoping it will be resolved in a similar way -- because if the court orders release of the donor's identity, that will be the end of sperm banks in Massachusetts. (What man would agree to donate his sperm to a sperm bank if he knew that his identity was not protected?) Now, the issue has been raised in the context of marital families. This issue does not arise in a vacuum. There has been a big move nationally to allow husbands and ex-husbands to "disestablish" their paternity if it turns out that the children they have been raising aren't biologically theirs. This issue is complex, and I see both sides. On the one hand, it is rough to require a man to pay child support for a child with whom he has no biological or emotional connection -- a child that is living proof that his wife cheated on him -- just because the child was born during a marriage that subsequently fell apart. On the other hand, it is rough to allow a man to ditch a child whom he has raised, and who relates to him as a father, just because it turns out that the man's fatherhood is not biological. These arguments are being played out in the media, in the legislatures, and in the courts around the country -- but up until now, they have involved men trying to be relieved of child support obligations directly, without bringing the children into the fray. Now, a man who has lost his child support battle has come up with a new approach -- get the kids to sue. Make it seem like the issue is one of genetic justice, not of child support. As with all such matters, my gut reaction is -- keep the kids out of it!! Don't give folks one more reason to put their children in the middle of their disputes about custody and child support. If we're going to reconsider how we determine who "parents" are -- which is a truly complex issue involving both biology and the social realities of children's lives -- let's do that as adults through discourse and through the political process. It is a discussion we desperately need to be having on a national level -- but not by encouraging children to sue their parents.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Taking Inspiration from The Pumpkin Runner

I was walking to pick up my mail and drop off my dry cleaning yesterday, and found myself thinking about The Pumpkin Runner. The Pumpkin Runner (http://www.marshadianearnold.com/bookgallery/pumpkinrunner.html) is a wonderful children's book by Marsha Diane Arnold, based on the true story of an Australian cattle farmer named Cliff Young. Cliff Young, at the age of 61, decided to run the first annual 500-mile ultra-marathon from Melbourne to Sydney. He trained by running around his farm in his gumboots, herding his cattle. Although he was ridiculed when he entered the race -- given his age and his lack of formal running experience -- he went on not only to win the race but to cut two days off the record for a race that distance. After winning, he shared his cash prize with all the other 10 racers. What I have always loved about The Pumpkin Runner -- since I first read it to my boys when they were in preschool -- was the message that we can be fit and healthy by just doing what we have to do anyway in a more mindful, athletic way. Forget driving to the gym to work out, as so many of us do these days -- just get out there and walk briskly, run and/or ride a bike to the grocery store, the post office, school, work, wherever.... And so, yesterday, I marched out of my house with a napsack on my back, needing to pick up my office mail, do a little grocery shopping, drop off my dry cleaning. I brought my chocolate lab with me for company, and we walked briskly around Twin Peaks, over Tank Hill, through Cole Valley, then home. The circuit took about an hour and a half, and as my backpack got fuller with stuff I'd picked up along the way, the cardiovascular workout got more significant. I arrived home out of breath but happy and feeling good about the fact that instead of driving to do my errands and then "working out," I had taken heed of Cliff Young's message -- saved some gas -- gotten my work done -- and gotten some sunshine and exercise to boot. So do yourself a favor -- read The Pumpkin Runner and then get out there and walk ... run ... bike your way through your day. You may not win an ultra-marathon, but it sure feels good....

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Thank God for Angelina and Brad!

For years, I have had the impression that the stigmatization of adoption was lessening, and that more and more people were seeing adoption as a healthy, normal (albeit "alternative") way to create families. But in the last few months, it again seems like it's socially acceptable to treat adoptions as a last resort and adopted children as leftovers. I am very troubled by this trend. The two events that really got me thinking about this were completely unrelated. First, I have been deeply offended by the discussions of families included in the recent court fights on the gay marriage issue. The way the groups defending marriage discrimination talk, the only way to have a "normal" family is for a husband and wife to raise their own biological children. In the way they characterize "traditional" families, they are marginalizing not only same-sex families and single-parent families, but also adoptive families. Second, some of the promotion around assisted reproductive technologies (including egg and sperm donation and embryo donation) makes it seem like children aren't "really" yours unless you "create" them in some manner. Several days ago, conservative columnist Debra J. Saunders (with whom I strongly disagree on most issues) published a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled "Embryos Made to Order." (For the full column, go to http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2006/08/08/EDGOBIQ0G01.DTL ) In her column, Debra Saunders told of a Texas woman named Jennalee Ryan who has opened "The Abraham Center of Life" in San Antonio, advertised as "the world's first donor created human embryo bank." Some background: when couples are experiencing infertility, many turn to in vitro fertilization -- i.e. the fertilization of eggs with sperm in a laboratory environment. This process creates embryos, which can then be implanted in the womb of the woman who is experiencing infertility issues, or in the womb of a contractual surrogate. But almost inevitably, more embryos are created than are used. And the remaining embryos can either be destroyed or cryopreserved or donated, depending on the wishes of the folks who "own" the embryos (which can be the clinic; the egg and/or sperm donor; or the contracting couple, depending on the policy of the clinic and the laws of the state in which the embryos were created). Current estimates are that there are over half a million cryopreserved embryos hanging around in various storage facilities, and what to do with these embryos is a source of endless debate. (One of the key issues in the stem cell debate is whether these embryos should be made available for stem cell research.) The "pro-life" position is that these are unborn children, and "embryo adoption" programs have been set up to try to find "adoptive" homes for them. (See, e.g., "Snowflakes" Frozen Embryo Adoption Program, "helping some of the more than 400,000 frozen embryos achieve their ultimate purpose -- life -- while sharing the hope of a child with an infertile couple." http://www.nightlight.org/snowflakeadoption.htm ) Now, Jennalee Ryan has added a new twist to this debate -- she has offered folks a chance to create embryos using their own carefully chosen egg and sperm donors, rather than accept other folks' "leftovers." And if you think I'm exaggerating, check out her own press release: "Until now, the only embryos that have been available for donation, also referred to as adoption, have been discarded embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles involving infertile families. Issues with this technique include incredibly low success rates (approximately 30 percent) and the emotional attachments that the infertile genetic parents sometimes have when relinquishing genetic offspring to strangers." Ms. Ryan goes on to point out that adoption "often has complications such as drug and alcohol use during pregnancy, genetic mental illnesses, fraudulent birthmothers and those that change their minds." http://newsroom.eworldwire.com/view_release.php?id=15132 Now, let me be clear about what's bothering me here. I understand that some people have a very strong impulse to have children that are genetically related to themselves. I understand that some of these people choose to engage in IVF procedures to try to have their own genetic children, rather than adopting a child genetically unrelated to them. I also understand that some folks who are unable to have their own genetic children want the experience of giving birth, causing them to look for egg donors, sperm donors, and/or donated embryos. And I understand that there also are many people who would prefer to adopt a newborn than an older child. Since it can be very difficult -- and also very expensive -- to locate a newborn for adoption, it makes sense that some of these folks would want to look into "adopting" some of those cryopreserved embryos. (I put adoption in quotes because you can't actually adopt a baby until there's a baby to adopt, so embryos aren't actually "adopted" in any state that I'm aware of.) Now here's the problem. We have over 100,000 children in foster care in California alone, and national estimates are that there are well over 100,000 children in foster care nationally that have been cleared for adoption and are just waiting for good homes. Add to that another 400,000 embryos in storage. And yet there is an industry starting to convince people NOT to adopt children who desparately need homes (after all, they may be damaged goods) and NOT to accept donated embryos (after all, they have already been "discarded" by someone else) but instead to CREATE NEW EMBRYOS from new eggs and new sperm, chosen on the basis of the academic credentials and good looks of the donors, among other things. Well, I'm sorry. I don't get it. And it seems to me that the combination of the vilification of "non-traditional" families by the "defense of marriage" folks, and the marketing efforts of those who hope to make their fortunes selling designer babies to people experiencing infertility issues, is creating an environment where it once again is okay to be downright rude about adoption, and -- as I said at the beginning of this blog -- to treat adopted children as "leftovers." Which brings me to the title of this blog -- thank god for Angelina and Brad, proud parents of adopted Maddox from Cambodia and Zahara from Ethiopia. At least they have put the wonders of adoption on the cover of People and Us -- and have portrayed adoption in an indisputably positive way. Now if we could just get them interested in the children of Los Angeles....

Friday, August 04, 2006

Victory in Miller-Jenkins

After all the recent defeats, it's nice to have a victory to report on! Those of you who read this blog regularly may remember that there is an interstate lesbian custody dispute going on involving Vermont and Virginia. The case involves Lisa Miller-Jenkins and Janet Miller-Jenkins, two women who travelled from Virginia to Vermont to enter into a civil union in preparation for having a baby together. They subsequently returned to Virginia and Lisa gave birth to their daughter. They then moved to Vermont -- finding Virginia an inhospitable place in which to raise a child as a lesbian couple -- and ultimately broke up in Vermont. The Vermont court took jurisdiction and entered custody, visitation and support orders. Lisa then took the child and moved back to Virginia and -- on the day that Virginia's Defense of Marriage Act went into effect -- petitioned the Virginia courts to be declared the child's sole legal parent. The Virginia courts ruled in Lisa's favor, finding that the Vermont orders were void in Virginia because they were based on a civil union not recognized as valid by Virginia. In the meantime, Lisa was held in contempt of court by Vermont for failing to honor their visitation orders. Now the case has made it all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court, which ruled today that the Vermont trial court had valid jurisdiction over this family when it made it's rulings, and that those rulings were appropriate and remain binding on Lisa, and that the contempt order against her for thumbing her nose at the Vermont courts is also valid. Of course, we still don't know what Virginia is going to have to say about this.... Anyway, the AP article on the case is pasted in below. And it sure is good to have someone sticking up for our children now and then!! http://www.wcax.com/global/story.asp?s=5240762&ClientType=Printable Vermont court says lesbian has joint custody of child MONTPELIER, Vt. -- The Vermont Supreme Court said Friday that Vermont courts, and not those in Virginia, have exclusive jurisdiction over an emotional case between two women arguing custody over a child they had while they were in a lesbian relationship. The unanimous ruling in Vermont conflicts with a series of decisions in Virginia courts, which held that that state's anti-gay marriage laws controlled the case. Vermont Justice John Dooley wrote, though, that it's Vermont's laws that control because the women involved in the dispute were legally joined in a civil union in 2000 and that's what governs their 2003 separation and subsequent child custody disagreement. A lawyer representing opponents of same-sex marriage said the dispute undoubtedly will have to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. "It's a classic conflict between two states over same-sex unions," said Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which is representing one of the women in the dispute. "The real question there is whether or not a state can have its own policy that does not accept same-sex unions or whether they have to accept the union of another state." Vermont became the first state in the nation to recognize same-sex couples' relationships in 2000, enacting a civil union law that mimics marriage. Only one other state has such a law and whether such relationships would be recognized in other states has been a matter of litigation. "This is a straightforward interstate jurisdictional dispute over custody, and the governing law fully supports the Vermont court's decision to exercise jurisdiction and refuse to follow the conflicting Virginia visitation order," Dooley wrote. The case involves Lisa Miller-Jenkins and Janet Miller-Jenkins, who were Virginia residents in 2000 when they traveled to Vermont to join in a civil union. Lisa Miller-Jenkins conceived a child through artificial insemination while the couple was together, and they eventually moved full-time to Vermont. About a year later Lisa Miller-Jenkins renounced her homosexuality, returned to Virginia, and denied Janet Miller-Jenkins' demands for visitation rights. They were granted a dissolution of their civil union, akin to divorce, and Lisa Miller-Jenkins filed for full custody. A Vermont Family Court judge gave Janet Miller-Jenkins temporary visitation, prompting Lisa Miller-Jenkins to file a month later for full custody in Virginia courts. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in favor of Janet Miller-Jenkins on three key issues: the visitation dispute, the Vermont court's refusal to abide by the Virginia court's orders, and a contempt ordered issued by the Vermont Family Court against Lisa Miller-Jenkins for failing to abide by its visitation order. Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.