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Second, third, fourth parents

National

Issue: "As the West burns," Sept. 6, 2003

Insisting that "the adoption statutes are to be construed liberally," the California Supreme Court last month used a decades-old rule meant to support the family to undermine it instead.

The court voted 6-1 to allow so-called "second parent" adoptions by unmarried individuals. Under the California Family Code, an adoption ordinarily terminates a birth mother's parental rights. In 1925, the California Supreme Court recognized an exception for when a mother's husband adopts her child as a stepchild, and the California legislature added that exception to the statute.

In this case, Sharon S. gave birth in 1999 after artificial insemination and agreed to allow Annette F., her lesbian partner, to adopt the child. When they split the following year, Sharon sought to revoke the agreement, arguing that California law did not provide for this kind of second-parent adoption.

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The court disagreed, saying that its 1925 decision should not be limited to married couples and that termination of parental rights in adoptions is optional whenever the parties want it that way.

This innovation invited criticism from three justices. Two of them, who nonetheless agreed with the result in this case, said the ruling "makes new law" that would permit "three or more parents" and would "put at risk fundamental understandings of family and parentage."

Justice Janice Brown, a nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, was the lone dissenter. She criticized the majority's "stunted view of parenthood" that "maximizes the self-interest and convenience of parents, but poorly serves" children.

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