'Mother' and 'father' labels may be removed from Iowa birth certificates

Supreme Court rules both lesbian spouses' names must be on child's birth certificate


The Iowa Department of Public Health may replace 'father' and 'mother' labels with 'parent' on Iowa birth certificates following an Iowa Supreme Court ruling Friday requiring the department to list both lesbian spouses on a child's birth certificate.

"The Department of Public Health appreciates the definitive direction from the Supreme Court," wrote public health spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kimm in an email to The Gazette. "We will have to train hospital staff and change our birth worksheets as we currently have the labels of 'mother' and 'father' in the electronic system. These may have to be changed to say 'parent'."

The Supreme Court affirmed a district court ruling that both spouses in a lesbian marriage should be listed on a child’s birth certificate. The court ordered the state health department to reissue a birth certificate Heather and Melissa Gartner, of Des Moines, for their daughter Mackenzie, born in September 2009.

The department previously refused to list Melissa Gartner, 42, the nonbirthing parent, on the birth certificate.

"All I know is that we won," Heather Gartner, 41, said Friday morning after dropping off her children Zachary, 6, and Mackenzie, 3, at school and daycare.

Guided by its 2009 ruling in Varnum vs. Brien that legalized same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court wrote in the Gartner case that Iowa laws must "recognize that married lesbian couples who have children enjoy the same benefits and burdens as married opposite-sex couples who have children."

“By naming the nonbirthing spouse on the birth certificate of a married lesbian couple’s child, the child is ensured supported from that parent and that parents establishes fundamental rights at the moment of birth,” the 29-page ruling states.

Among those rights is a parent's right to allow medical procedures for a child, Heather Gartner said. When Mackenzie was hospitalized as a baby because of a respiratory issue, Heather stayed with her the entire time in case the hospital needed parental permission for treatment.

"That gets scary," she said. "You don't want to take a chance."

There are other occasions, such as enrolling a child in school or filing taxes, when legal parentage is required, Heather said.

Melissa and Heather got married June 13, 2009, after being together since 2003. Heather was pregnant at the time through an anonymous sperm donor -- the same man who supplied sperm for the couple's son. Heather gave birth to Mackenzie on Sept. 19, 2009.

Health department officials said they did not know Friday how many people could be affected by the ruling. They are going through records to see how many children were born to same-sex couples since 2009.

"The court found that the department's construction of the presumption of paternity law -- which directs the department to name a woman's husband as the father of her child on the birth certificate -- was correct," Carver-Kimm wrote. "But the Court went on to hold that the statute itself violates the equal protection clause of the constitution."

Camilla Taylor, the Gartners' attorney and marriage project director for Lambda Legal, said the Supreme Court decision could also help gay couples who have a child through a surrogate mother.

"The language the court uses about spousal presumption of parentage clearly applies equally to all kids," she said.

The Varnum decision has had far-reaching effects. In 2010, Iowa voters ousted two Supreme Court justices who supported the ruling. A few conservatives in the Iowa House of Representatives offered a budget amendment last month that would have cut the pay for any remaining justices who were part of the unanimous Varnum decision.

While Justices Edward Mansfield agreed with the court's decision, he issued a special concurrence saying "if Varnum is the law, then Iowa Code Section 144.13(2) cannot be constitutionally applied." Justice Thomas Waterman joined the special concurrence. Both judges were appointed in 2011 by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

Justice Bruce Zager, also a Branstad appointee, did not weigh in on the case.

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