This Article challenges the conventional assumption that the Constitution protects only biological parent-child relationships and makes an affirmative case for constitutional protection for nonbiological parents. Family law in a growing number of states legally recognizes nonbiological parents in a range of families—including nonmarital families, families headed by same-sex couples, and families formed through assisted reproduction. But in some states, nonbiological parents who have not adopted are treated as legal strangers to their children. When these parents turn to the Constitution to assert a liberty interest in their parent-child relationship, they find no relief. Courts conclude that only biological parents possess a right to parental recognition protected by the Due Process Clause. This biological understanding of constitutional parenthood often rests on a reading of Supreme Court precedents from the 1970s and 1980s involving the rights of unmarried fathers and the status of foster parents. This Article revisits those precedents—both to show that they present a more complicated approach to parenthood than conventionally assumed and to make clear the ways in which they are in tension with more recent constitutional commitments. Rather than elaborate a biological approach to parenthood, the Court’s decisions on unmarried fathers and foster parents view parenthood as a social practice. Even as these precedents provide useful insights about parenthood’s social dimensions, they are outdated. Decided decades ago, these decisions condone forms of inequality that now appear constitutionally suspect. Since they were decided, legal understandings of the family have shifted significantly. The Court itself has contributed to the changing legal landscape through its decisions on the constitutional rights of same-sex couples—who ordinarily include nonbiological parents.
Today, insights, principles, and values observable in constitutional precedents on parenthood and the family point toward a liberty interest in parental recognition that reaches nonbiological parents. To show how, this Article turns to contemporary family-law developments. Modern family law takes from constitutional precedents important insights about parenthood and yet updates the meanings and implications of those precedents. Family law’s functional turn has featured the vindication of nonbiological parent-child bonds based in part on interpretations of constitutional decisions on unmarried fathers, foster parents, and same-sex couples. In valuing established parent-child bonds in marital and nonmarital families, in different-sex and same-sex couples, and for men and women, family-law authorities have found support in the Court’s decisions but have taken those decisions in more inclusive and egalitarian directions. Even as this functional vision of parenthood has arisen as a formal matter in family law, it reflects and extends important constitutional commitments in ways that shed light on the parent-child relationships that merit recognition as a matter of due process. Ultimately, constitutional understandings of parenthood may evolve in light of insights from family law. This Article’s examination of the law of parenthood contributes to an account of the dialogic relationship between family law and constitutional law—demonstrating how family-law authorities develop approaches to the family that draw on and apply constitutional principles in ways constitutional decisionmakers may eventually adopt.
* Anne Urowsky Professor of Law, Yale Law School. For helpful comments, I thank Anne Alstott, Albertina Antognini, Susan Appleton, Kathy Baker, Katharine Bartlett, Alex Boni-Saenz, Meghan Boone, Courtney Cahill, Naomi Cahn, June Carbone, Anne Dailey, Jess Feinberg, Joey Fishkin, Owen Fiss, Jim Fleming, Cary Franklin, Abbe Gluck, Jill Hasday, Michael Higdon, Clare Huntington, Courtney Joslin, Suzanne Kim, Katie Kraschel, Gary Lawson, Serena Mayeri, Linda McClain, Melissa Murray, Sasha Natapoff, Robert Post, Cristina Rodriguez, Mark Rosen, Chris Schmidt, Alan Schwartz, Elizabeth Scott, David Seipp, Carolyn Shapiro, Scott Shapiro, Reva Siegel, and Jordan Woods, as well as participants at the International Society of Family Law Conference, the Family Law Teachers and Scholars Conference, and faculty workshops at Boston University, Chicago-Kent College of Law, Texas Law, and the Yale Law School. For excellent research assistance, I thank Zach Fields, Jade Ford, Becca Steinberg, Callie Wilson, and Kath Xu, as well as Lora Johns at Yale Law Library. I am also grateful to the editors of the Stanford Law Review.