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The Parent Trap: Differential Familial Power in Same-Sex Families

William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 15, p. 1, 2009

49 Pages Posted: 5 May 2008 Last revised: 10 Nov 2009

Deirdre M. Bowen, J.D., Ph.D.

Seattle University School of Law


Do intact same-sex couples in which one member of the couple became pregnant with assisted reproduction or one member was the primary adopter, and the other member became a parent through second parent adoption understand the legal protections afforded them? In short the answer is no. An interesting family dynamic arises around who can claim the true status as parent based on their legal understandings of parenthood and their interactions with the dominant culture. While high profile custody cases on this issue have been decided in the United States with varying results, no research has examined the impact of uneven legal protections afforded to gay fathers and mothers on intact same-sex families.

Results indicated that second parent adopters had much less emotional power in the family, but often had more economic power. Even in long-term stable relationships, non-biological mothers and second parent adoptive fathers expressed significant worries about this emotional power differential. On the other hand, biologically connected mothers and some primary adopter fathers were concerned about whether their partners would continue to financially support their children should the couple's relationship dissolve. Both parents had misconceptions about what kind of legal protections or obligations the law afforded these second parent adopters should the couple end their relationship. Furthermore, the families' interactions with the larger culture served to further undermine the stability of the family, as they worried whether their family would be culturally and legally recognized if they traveled from one state to another. Ultimately, I conclude that second parent adopters become imprisoned parents within the family and across the larger culture because of current legal frameworks and policies. Recommendations are made for legislatures, courts, policy-makers, and lawyers to expand parentage presumptions, allow for joint adoption outside of the marital context, and reframe how lawyers counsel same-sex couples as they engage in family formation.

Keywords: domestic relations, family, parentage, sexuality, same-sex parents

Suggested Citation

Bowen, J.D., Ph.D., Deirdre M., The Parent Trap: Differential Familial Power in Same-Sex Families. William and Mary Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 15, p. 1, 2009. Available at SSRN:

Deirdre M. Bowen (Contact Author)

Seattle University School of Law ( email )

206.398.4289 (Phone)

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