Wednesday, April 2, 2008

SX - "One State, One Mother" by Jenni Millbank

There’s no reason for New South Wales to be dragging the chain in same-sex parenting rights, writes Jenni

The majority of same-sex families in Australia are formed by lesbian couples having children through assisted conception.

In some families this is with anonymous sperm, while in others it is with the help of a known donor or biological father who is often a gay man.

Men in these arrangements occupy a wide variety of roles, from a ‘donor’ with little or no contact with the child, to an on-going relationship that is friendly and may or may not involve him being called ‘Dad’.

Children in all of these families have two mothers but have the protection and security of a legal relationship with only one parent: the birth mother. These children may also be deprived of a legal relationship with their sister or brother. Even if they have the same biological father but are each born to a different mother in the couple, NSW will not record the children as siblings.

A very simple way to solve this situation is to open up the existing presumption of parental status for heterosexual couples and apply it to lesbian couples.

A man who consents to his female partner conceiving through donor insemination or IVF is the legal father of the child regardless of his lack of genetic connection to the child. This presumption, in existence for more than 30 years in Australian law, renders social fathers the legal fathers of children whom they intended to raise.

A sperm donor, whether known or anonymous is (like an egg donor) not a legal parent.

This rule recognises the importance of children having a legally protected relationship with both of the parents who actually live with and care for them, regardless of genetic connection.

Such parents can then make important medical decisions for their children, can travel with them overseas, and can pass on property to them in the absence of a will. Legal recognition also ensures that both parents are equally placed if they later separate and have a dispute.

The biological connection of one parent in these situations should not be used as a weapon to exclude the other.

Providing automatic recognition to the second female parent in lesbian families should not be seen as something that competes with, or detracts from, the rights of a known donor/biological father.

Firstly, known donors are not legal fathers in Australia, so they do not lose any rights by co-mothers gaining parental status.

Secondly, in the vast majority of families, children live with their mothers and some have a contact relationship with their biological father, which does not necessarily require full parental status.

Furthermore, if biological fathers have, or wish to have, relationships with children, the Family Court has attached great importance to both the social relationship and their biological connection with the child, regardless of the lack of legal parental status.

Legal recognition of lesbian co-mothers is not about devaluing the role of involved gay fathers; rather it is about providing a clear legal support for the primary caregiving unit.

In 2002 Western Australia was the first Australian state to extend a presumption of parentage to lesbian partners, followed by the Northern Territory in 2003 and the ACT in 2004. This parental status will be extended to both female parents in Victorian law later in 2008.

Equivalent reforms have also been in place in South Africa since 2003, New Zealand since 2004 and were introduced in most Canadian provinces from 2002-2006.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission recommended similar provisions for all federal law in their report into same-sex families last year.

Yet last week the NSW Attorney-General John Hatzistergos announced that NSW will not follow the lead of WA, the ACT, NT and Victoria, and will instead continue to prevent children in lesbian families from having the protection and care of two legal parents.

This stubborn resistance to the tide of change is lamentable: NSW was the first to introduce same-sex couple rights in 1999, don’t let us be the last to pass parenting rights.

Jenni Millbank is a Professor of Law at the University of Technology, Sydney.

[Link: Original Article]

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