The purpose of birth certificates

Gazette Editorial Board


Last week’s Iowa Supreme Court decision, that married lesbian parents both should be listed on a child’s birth certificate, could mean that at least some children’s birth records include the names of parents, rather than mothers and fathers.

But that is the biggest change represented by the court’s unanimous opinion.

Because while our system of recording births always has been based on the fact that all children have a biological mother and biological father, it never has been a perfect record of genetic heritage.

Documentation of that heritage is important, for medical and other reasons. It makes sense for that information to be included in a child’s medical record.

Names listed on a birth certificate are another, equally important, matter: They represent the parents’ assumption of legal rights and responsibilities for the child.

This has always been true for heterosexual married couples. Iowa law has long stated that when a married woman gives birth, her husband should be presumed the father of the child.

That rule has held true even in cases, such as when a couple becomes pregnant through artificial insemination, when the husband is not the child’s biological father.

And that’s not the purpose of a birth certificate, court justices wrote in their opinion in Heather and Melissa Gartner v. the Iowa Department of Public health. Birth certificates, instead, are used to establish the date and fact of a birth, to identify a child for immunization and verify a person’s identity.

In short, it never has been the Department of Public Health’s role to determine or make judgments about children’s biological paternity.

The court unanimously ruled last week that failure to apply that same standard to lesbian parents would violate equal protection clauses under the Iowa Constitution.

We agree with court justices who found that “the only explanation for not listing the nonbirthing lesbian spouse on the birth certificate is stereotype or prejudice.”

Moreover, listing both married lesbian parents on children’s birth certificates gives the child extra stability in the form of two parents legally responsible for their well-being and support, from birth.

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