In a decision that follows a national trend, the state’s highest court extended parental rights to people in same-sex relationships who never married and have no biological connection to a child, but can show that they actively took part in the child’s upbringing since birth.
The court found that a person’s lack of biological ties to a child should not disqualify him or her from being a parent. Advocates say the unanimous ruling protects the rights of all children born to unwed couples.
It is the first such ruling in Massachusetts, but it follows a handful of decisions in other states extending parental rights to same-sex couples.
“There’s been so much focus on marriage that we’ve lost sight of another important principle, that we don’t allow children to be treated differently because their parents aren’t married,” said Nancy D. Polikoff, a professor at the American University Washington College of Law who followed the case.
The Supreme Judicial Court found that, using gender-neutral standards, state laws granting parental rights to fathers of children born out of wedlock should extend to same-sex parents.
The decision came in the case of a Burlington woman who sought parental rights for two children who were born to her former partner, who was impregnated by artificial insemination.
The woman, Karen Partanen, had been there when the children were born — she participated in the insemination procedure for the youngest — and shared parental responsibilities with her former partner Julie Gallagher until their relationship ended after 12 years. The children, now 8 and 4, call Partanen mommy. The couple split up in 2013.
“Partanen was involved . . . in all decision-making for the children, including in matters related to their education and healthcare,” Justice Barbara Lenk wrote for the court in the 22-page decision, adding that “nothing in the language of [the state law] expressly limits its applicability to parentage claims based on asserted biological ties.”
Partanen and legal analysts said the ruling extends her parental rights while protecting her children’s rights to claim two parents, regardless of their marital status. It will allow Partanen to claim the children on legal paperwork, such as for insurance benefits, and it means she will be required to pay child support. It will also allow her to be listed on the children’s birth certificates.
“My children have two parents,” Partanen said in a conference call, telling reporters that the children call her “Mommy” and call her former partner “Momma.”
“They should have the right to both of us,” she said.
Mary Bonauto, of GLAD, the advocacy organization that assisted in the case, added, “the real beneficiaries here are the children.”
“Her children are going to know she is their parent, she is not there by the grace of someone else, she’s not someone who visits once in a while,” she said.
The court found that a lack of biological ties cannot disqualify someone as a parent if they can prove they were involved in the child’s upbringing since birth.
Partanen, the court found, took part in Gallagher’s artificial insemination with the understanding they would both be parents. Partanen had attempted in vitro fertilization first, but the procedure was unsuccessful. She was present in the delivery room when her partner gave birth and welcomed the children into their shared home, the court found. She woke for night-time feedings, prepared meals, and went grocery shopping.
The Supreme Judicial Court sent Partanen’s case back to Middlesex Probate and Family Court to decide if Partanen should have parental rights under the new interpretation of state law, but Lenk wrote that the justices agree she should be.
The evidence shows “the children were born both to her and to Gallagher,” Lenk wrote.
Jennifer M. Lamanna, an attorney for Gallagher, said Tuesday that she will review the decision and consider Partanen’s assertion that she should be granted parental rights.
Lamanna said Gallagher never disputed that Partanen should have some visitation rights — she sees the children already under a separate court ruling — but Lamanna said her client questioned the notion that another person can claim parental rights over children she gave birth to, when they were never married.
“The most difficult part of this for Julie is that she has consistently taken every step along the way to prevent her legal parentage from being encroached upon,” she said. “My client has to sit back, digest the decision, and think about what’s best for her and what’s best for her children.”
Following last year’s US Supreme Court ruling affirming the rights of same-sex couples to marry, Tuesday’s decision also provides protections for children of same-sex relationships, according to legal analysts. The decision in Massachusetts follows similar appeals court rulings in New York and Maryland in recent months. And states across the country have changed laws to reflect those rights: Maine, for instance, enacted a law in July that grants unmarried parents the same rights that were upheld by the Supreme Judicial Court.
“I think [the Massachusetts decision] will be influential in encouraging other states to rule that a child does not need their parents to be married in order to be their legal parents,” said Polikoff.