Modern parenthood and parentage law: how to create a better match?

Laureen Hu

A child with two fathers and two mothers, a child with three parents, a child with unmarried parents: to arrange legal parenthood in the Netherlands, you have to take action yourself and sometimes this is simply not possible yet. Parenthood and parentage touch on so many facets of life, and are so entwined with traditional ideas about sex, relationships and procreation, that legislators are not easily modernized. Laureen Hu is conducting doctoral research on fundamental reconsiderations of Dutch parentage law, at UCERF, the family law research group of Utrecht University. 

Apparently the law can't deal with variation?

Adjustments have been made to cater for different types of families. For example, the introduction of the Lesbian Parenthood Act, in 2014, has made it possible for both women to be the legal mother, without a judge having to intervene. Since 2016, multiple parenthood has also been seriously discussed in The Hague, which means that a child can have more than two legal parents. A change is on its way. In the so called Rainbow Agreement, Dutch political parties have pledged to provide for a multi-parenthood law in the Netherlands. This is also apparent from the coalition agreement of the current Dutch government.   

Even so, parentage law in the Netherlands, which regulates the legal relationship between parents and children, is still based on an idealized image of the standard family: a married man and woman with their biological children. But the role and meaning of marriage is very different in today's society than it used to be. Moral views on relationships and sex have changed. I think that it is precisely the situations that deviate from this standard that offer space to reflect on the question of who should be the parents of a child, what rights and obligations this entails and why. What is the justification for the choices we make?

It's precisely the situations that deviate from the standard, that offer space to reflect on parenthood and the rights and duties of parents

Laureen Hu
Researcher Family Law, Utrecht University

If your situation deviates from the standard family, can you get in trouble?

Yes, take for example a father who lives together with the mother without being married. This often occurs in the Netherlands. Such a father – unlike the married father – does not automatically become the legal father of his child. The parents can arrange legal fatherhood (paternity) through recognition, but this does not always happen. If the couple then separates, conflicts about fatherhood can arise. If legal parenthood is not (properly) arranged, it can have a drastic impact on the lives of children and parents, because legal parenthood entails all kinds of rights and duties. Legal parents have parental authority and are therefore responsible for the care and upbringing of their child. And think, for example, of the right of children to inherit from their parents and to obtain a certain surname and the Dutch nationality.

How do you investigate the reconsideration of parentage law?

By looking at the underlying assumptions, beliefs and values with regard to parenthood. I look at it from a (legal) philosophical and ethical angle: when are you a parent and what does it mean to be a parent of a child? Is it about biological bonds, love and care or something else? I also look at it from a legal angle. How is it regulated in the law and could it be regulated? I try to bring those two perspectives together. In doing so, I base myself, among other things, on: legal scientific literature, laws, court decisions and Parliamentary documents that show the history of the creation of parentage law.

The position of the biological father is going to get stronger, I expect.

Laureen Hu
Researcher Family Law, Utrecht University

What do you think will change in this area in the coming years?

The position of the biological father will become stronger, I expect. At the moment his position in Dutch law is not as strong as the mother's position. Taking into account that children have the right to know their origins, I think the position of the biological father will be strengthened in the coming years. An interesting aspect is of course what this would mean for the position of the mother and her relationship with the child. Will she have to give something up? I am curious about this, although it is too early to make definitive statements.

I also expect that multiple parenthood will be introduced. That desire for inclusion is so strong. A few years ago, the Government Committee on the Reassessment of Parenthood recommended introducing legal multiple parenthood because of the current modern era. And political parties have promised to arrange this.

What drives you personally to study this?

My aim is to help ensure that an arrangement is made for all parents and children. I want that parents and children are well protected by the law, so that the law fits their lives as closely as possible.

By researching parent-child relationships, I hope to figure out what on earth we are doing here.

Laureen Hu
Researcher Family Law, Utrecht University

How did you come up with this topic?

My PhD supervisors, Prof. Wendy Schrama and Dr. Jet Tigchelaar, pointed out to me that parenthood, in view of social developments, raises complex but also crucial questions on both a legal and philosophical level. That seemed like a great challenge to me. For many people, having a child and giving them care and love gives meaning to their lives. By researching parent-child relationships, I hope to come one tiny step closer to the impossible-to-answer question of what we are doing here on earth.

When you're done with your research, what should ideally be there?

An overview of the current problems in parentage law regarding unmarried fathers and multi-parent families, and recommendations to reduce them. I am thinking of creating a kind of 'menu' in which different models are set out to organize parentage law in an alternative manner, with reasons to justify why such a model might be desirable.