The words ‘mother’ or ‘father’ no longer appear on birth certificates in British Columbia. A Vancouver baby, Della Wolf Kangro Wiley Richards, the daughter of lesbian parents, Anna Richards and Danielle Wiley, and their male friend Shawn Kangro, has just become the first child in BC with three parents listed on a birth certificate, without litigation.
This is the first time that BC has legislated with respect to determinations of legal parentage of assisted reproductive technology (ART)-conceived children.
“We learned that we would be the first here in BC only after we applied. Someone from Vital Statistics called us to give us the news,” Richards said. “The Family Act responsible for allowing for three or more names on a birth certificate is so new that even those working at Vital Statistics didn’t seem confident on how to go about it. Surely this suggests that the general population knew much less.”
Effective as of March 18, 2013, BC’s new Family Law Act says that a donor of sperm or eggs, a surrogate mother and perhaps the partners of those individuals, may be registered as legal parents of a child, provided that all of the intended prospective parents agree in writing prior to conception—making it the first province in Canada and Della’s family the first to undergo the process. While Della was born on October 23, 2013, the family finalized her birth certificate registration last week.
According to the parents’ lawyer, barba findlay—who writes her name without capital letters, what now defines a legal parent “is, someone [from whom] the child can inherit and is on their birth certificate.” She explained, “The law spells out who the ‘parent’ is if a child is conceived by assisted human reproduction—donated egg, sperm or a surrogate mother. However other people, that is stepparents, may also be liable to pay child support or may have a right to parenting time for example, even if they are not on a child’s birth certificate; and the fact that you are a legal parent doesn’t automatically give you parenting time.”
“Danielle and I are financially responsible for Della and have full custody of her,” Richards said. “Shawn’s role is akin to that of a guardian…he has visiting rights, and all sorts of other privileges—i.e. travelling out of country. It’s worth mentioning that even though Shawn is not financially obligated to Della, he nonetheless intends to contribute to her education fund and will cover costs when she and he spend time together.”
Still, however, signing more than three parents is a process. According to findlay, the registration form that Vital Statistics uses is still designed for the usual two parent family. If there are more than two parents, a separate form is available through Vital Stats by request.
“The regular birth certificate form still only allows for only two names so we had to ask Vital Statistics to send their newest long-form version by mail. We then learned that in order to have our application accepted, we’d have to prove that we had a parenting agreement, written before conception, in which we outlined our wishes to make Shawn a third parent. Luckily we had done this anyway,” she said.
The maximum number of parents, however, has not yet been established. “The Vital Statistics Agency has made four spaces on their form,” findlay explained. “It is possible that there may be more than four parents, but that would require an application to court.”
Richards admitted that having Kangro’s name on Della’s legal documents provided them with reassurance. “What helped crystallize our decision was Shawn’s that he would have no legal recourse in the event that things went south,” she said. “Before the new act got passed, I believe that Shawn would have had to formally forfeit his parental rights in order for me, the bio-mom’s spouse to adopt our child. Sounds complicated.”
Prior to the Family Law Act, a birth parent, and a co-parent who was not genetically connected to a child, could be registered with the Vital Statistics Registry and get a birth certificate showing both of them to be “parents” of their child. However, the non-genetic co-parent—Richards, in this case—would not be a legal parent. Richards, then, would have been required to apply for stepparent adoption or a court order declaring her a legal parent. And Kangro would be dismissed as a donor devoid of rights and responsibilities, as sperm donation conflated with becoming a parent.
It also mattered how the child was conceived. Since Wiley had used the “turkey baster method” to inseminate, both she and Richards could have registered as Della’s legal parents at birth. Richards would need an adoption order or a declaration of parentage to confirm that she, and not Kangro, was the child’s second parent, as Della would not be allowed to have more than two.
Fortunately with the Family Law Act, they were not affected. “We wanted to conceive as cheaply as possible. Shawn got all the requisite testing done, but after that we did everything at home. We refer to it as the ‘home brew’ method,” Richards said. “Sperm met egg and the magic began.”
For Kangro, this was a life-changing decision. Richards and Kangro knew one another since they were undergraduate students at the University of Victoria. Richards said, noting that she cannot speak for Kangro who was unable to interview, “Being gay and close friends, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch back then to discuss the future possibility of having kids together. When theory became reality twelve years on, I imagine Shawn had to make some pretty significant mental shifts. After having consulted with friends and family, Shawn came back to us a couple weeks later with a ‘yes.’”
For Richards and Wiley, the decision was obvious. “Neither of us wanted to go the anonymous route, despite the many cautionary tales we’d heard from others. You don’t have to search long before finding horror stories outlining donor situations gone awry,” Richards said. “We decided that, while not essential, it would be nice for our children to know their biological provenance from the beginning.”
The couple was forced to consider all worse case scenarios with their lawyer. “We all had very real fears that we had stepped into legally terrifying territory. What if Shawn applies for custody? What if Danielle and I get divorced? What if we decided Shawn should pay child support? Believe me, these imagined scenarios made for some not-so-fun thought experiments. We went through all these possible scenarios in the hopes that our contract would act as our sane guide in times of difficulty,” Richards said.
They also encountered the argument that two mothers are more than plenty to raise a happy, well-adjusted child; thus why bother recruiting a third parent? But Richards explained, “Our decision did not arise out of fear that with two moms our kids would be lacking in male influences. Surely friends and uncles could have helped out on that front. We came to this decision because after asking Shawn about the role he wanted, he came to see himself as a dad, not just an acquaintance or avuncular figure. It took us a long time to flesh out the parameters of Shawn’s role in our parenting agreement but we left the door pretty open for him to play a pretty significant part in Della’s life.”
Now, Della has quite an extended family. “I can’t think of any disadvantages to that, except perhaps trying to negotiate events like Christmas dinner,” Richards said. “As for our friends, they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive of our decision. We’re fortunate to live here in Vancouver; there are lots of wonderful queer families in our neighborhood, which certainly helps. I appreciate that not everyone gets to enjoy this level of comfort.”
Though not everyone is as comfortable with Della’s dynamic parents as her extended relatives and family friends. Commentators have had a lot to say in response to some news pieces written about the family. “It appears some people still take exception to gay marriage, gay people having kids and the whole idea of making three people into legal parents. I don’t know, unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve likely noticed that the traditional family model of husband/wife/kids simply is not the only game in town…As laws change to reflect the lived realities of families, they seem to be moving in favor of the social rather than the biological connection…This signals a shift whereby biology is no longer privileged above all else,” Richards said.
As part of the first family to undergo the process of signing three legal parents on their child’s birth certificate, and the non-genetic parent who, prior to new legislation, would have been forced to tolerate grave complications, Richards had a lot to share. “My advice to others is to spend time writing a parenting agreement, preferably before conception. We got a lawyer to give us advice but there are usually other ways to get informed that are either free or relatively expensive. We gave ourselves a long time to fine-tune our agreement and wrote several drafts before finalizing it. We forced ourselves to consider every worse case scenario we could think of but also tried to remain in the spirit of our best intentions. The primary goal was always to consider our child’s needs before our own,” she said. “We’re really happy with our little family. Della has been such a lovely addition to each of our lives. She happily gobbles up all our time and we happily accept it. Hopefully our story helps spread the word to other non-traditional families in the works. To anyone interested in looking at our parenting agreement, don’t hesitate to get in touch.”