The Nature of Parenthood

122 Pages Posted: 22 Jun 2017

Date Written: June 2017


In the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, courts and legislatures claim in principle to have repudiated the privileging of different-sex over same-sex couples and men over women in the legal regulation of the family. But as struggles over assisted reproductive technologies (ART) demonstrate, in the law of parental recognition such privileging remains. Those who break from traditional norms of gender and sexuality — women who separate motherhood from biological ties (for instance, through surrogacy), and women and men who form families with a same-sex partner — often find their parent-child relationships discounted.

This Article explores what it means to fully vindicate gender and sexual-orientation equality in the law of parental recognition. It does so by situating the treatment of families formed through ART within a longer history of parentage. Inequalities that persist in contemporary law are traceable to earlier eras. In initially defining parentage through marriage, the common law embedded parenthood within a gender-hierarchical, heterosexual order. Eventually, courts and legislatures repudiated the common-law regime and protected biological parent-child relationships formed outside marriage. While this effort to derive parental recognition from biological connection was animated by egalitarian impulses, it too operated within a gender-differentiated, heterosexual paradigm.

Today, the law increasingly accommodates families formed through ART, and, in doing so, recognizes parents on not only biological but also social grounds. Yet, as courts and legislatures approach the parental claims of women and same-sex couples within existing frameworks organized around marital and biological relationships, they reproduce some of the very gender- and sexuality-based asymmetries embedded in those frameworks. With biological connection continuing to anchor nonmarital parenthood, unmarried gays and lesbians face barriers to parental recognition. With the gender-differentiated, heterosexual family continuing to structure marital parenthood, the law organizes the legal family around a biological mother. Against this backdrop, nonbiological mothers in different-sex couples, as well as nonbiological fathers in same-sex couples, struggle for parental recognition.

To protect the parental interests of women and of gays and lesbians, this Article urges greater emphasis on parenthood’s social dimensions. Of course, as our common law origins demonstrate, the law has long recognized parental relationships on social and not simply biological grounds. But today, commitments to equality require reorienting family law in ways that ground parental recognition more fully and evenhandedly in social contributions. While this Article focuses primarily on reform of family law at the state level, it also contemplates eventual constitutional oversight.

Keywords: Parentage, Marriage, Biological, Nonbiological, Parenthood, Family Law, Constitutional Law, Obergefell, Marriage Equality, ART

Suggested Citation

NeJaime, Douglas, The Nature of Parenthood (June 2017). 126 Yale Law Journal 2260 (2017); Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 604. Available at SSRN: or

Douglas NeJaime (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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