What Makes a Mother

A Pennsylvania appeals court has re-united a non-biological lesbian mother who has been estranged from her daughter. The two have been unable to carry on any kind of a relationship because the child's biological mother has worked to keep her daughter and former partner apart ever since the two women split. The non-biological mother, thanks to a Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling, will now get to see the daughter she helped raise for three years.

In addition to the immense personal relationships at stake, this case is important because of the strong wording of the court in favor of the non-biological mother. The ruling makes strong parallels between the two mothers and a spousal relationship that involved kids but that ended in divorce. It is another signal that while gay and lesbian families may not be winning the public relations or political campaigns to be recognized equally with that of heterosexuals, we are often getting astounding recognition in the courts.

While the Pennsylvania state court ruling only has an immediate impact on the residents of that particular state, it's true that state judicial rulings affect each other, both directly and indirectly. Today, a large number of states, including almost all the Northeast and West coast ones, treat gay and lesbian families with the same rules as they treat heterosexual families when it comes to children and parental break-ups. Ironic as it may sound, when the courts treat gay parents who are breaking up and fighting over children the same way they treat heterosexual parents who are breaking up and fighting over children, it is a huge step in the right direction toward recognizing same-sex relationships.

In this particular case, the two women, who were identified only as T.B. and L.R.M. in court documents, were in a long-term relationship, during which time they raised their daughter together. L.R.M. is the biological mother of the daughter. For three years. T.B. took on the full responsibilities of any parent, helping raise their daughter in every aspect of daily life. But when the two women split in 1996, L.R.M. refused to allow T.B. to visit their daughter. In fact, she did everything she could to alienate T.B. from the daughter. And then she tried to use the fact that the two had been alienated as legal reasoning to keep them apart.

Until the Superior Court ruling in late March, L.R.M.'s tactics had been successful. A lower court had ruled that because L.R.M. had been so successful in keeping the daughter and T.B. apart for so long, it was now in the child's best interest to remain separated from T.B. But the three-judge panel of the appeals court emphatically rejected that line of reasoning as having any legal basis. "Imagine a scenario where the same premise is applied to spouses," wrote Judge Michael T. Joyce in the court's uplifting ruling. "It is inconceivable that an embittered spouse who successfully estranges the children from the other spouse, to the point where the other spouse is unknown to the children, should be rewarded by a determination that it shall be in the best interest of the children not to have any relationship at all with the alienated spouse because of the custodial spouse's feelings," Judge Joyce continued. "The preposterousness of this scenario is equally applicable to the case at bar, despite [the non-biological lesbian mother's] non-traditional status." The appeals court chided a lower court, saying it "abused its discretion" by denying visitation rights to T.B. on the basis of this argument. The lower court had kept T.B. from seeing her daughter since 1997. It also had prohibited T.B. from seeing the little girl until the matter was fully resolved. The appeals court rescinded that specious ruling, and now T.B. will be allowed to visit her daughter immediately, in a guided setting.

The impact of the ruling on a personal level for T.B. and her daughter are immense. It means that T.B. will no longer be kept away from the little girl she loves, simply because of the bitterness of her former partner. The broader impact of the ruling can be found in the strong wording of the decision. The court said a lesbian or gay parent can seek visitation rights or custody of a child even if that parent is not the biological mother or father of the child, so long as, over time, he or she has acted as a parent and performed all the duties associated with parenthood, with the consent of the legal parent. While it is not uncommon for the family courts of many states to recognize "non-traditional" families, the wording in this case draws bold parallels between the separated lesbian couple and divorced heterosexual spouses. And that can only help us as we inch our way to more and more legal recognition of our relationships.

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