JACKSON, Miss. - A woman asked the Mississippi Supreme Court on Wednesday to award her parental rights to the child her ex-wife had given birth to, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered equality for same-sex couples when it authorized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
Opposing her was the woman who birthed a now-6-year-old boy when the two were married. The biological mother of the child said that her ex-wife had legal avenues open to her to bolster her parental rights during a divorce proceeding, but failed to pursue them.
Now Mississippi's nine justices must sort out those positions, in a case that could also affect opposite-sex couples who use someone else's eggs, sperm or both to conceive a child.
Christina "Chris" Strickland, a 44-year-old Pearl resident, wants to be listed as the legal parent of Zayden Strickland, who bears her name, hoping to ultimately gain equal custody. Rankin County Chancery Court Judge John Grant ruled that the unknown sperm donor who fathered Zayden in an in-vitro procedure, has parental rights. He awarded sole custody to Kimberly Day, who bore Zayden. Attorney Beth Littell told the justices they should reverse the judge's ruling.
"This child really needs to have a legal relationship to both people who brought him into the world and who he knows and understands to be his only parents, not some anonymous sperm donor," Littrell argued.
Strickland has said she wanted the hospital where Zayden was born to list her as a parent on the birth certificate, but said the hospital refused, citing Mississippi state law at the time.
"Christina should have been recognized on the birth certificate at the time. That was an unconstitutional law that prevented that from happening and shouldn't be used to justify claiming that she's not a parent now."
But lawyer Prentiss Grant, arguing for Day, said that sperm and egg donors do have legal rights and that when a child is conceived through artificial means, a second parent is more akin to someone who is adopting a child.
"This is basically a middle situation where we have a marital unit but we do not have a biological connection," Grant said.
He said the court should back the judge's ruling that Strickland has to persuade a judge to legally terminate the sperm donor's rights. He told justices that Strickland shouldn't benefit from the legal presumption that the children born in a marriage between a man and a woman belong to both. Grant said Strickland "knew from the beginning that she was not the parent of the child."
The case is being closely watched by both gay-rights activists and groups aiding in vitro fertilization. A ruling in Day's favour could mean that opposite-sex couples who use someone else's eggs or sperm would have to terminate donors' rights as well to achieve legal status.
Some cases elsewhere support Strickland. The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Arkansas earlier this year to put the names of two women as parents on birth certificates, saying same-sex couples must get "the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage." And the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples should get the same presumption of parentage as opposite-sex couples.
Chris Strickland has visitation rights and pays child support, but Littrell said she has a "much inferior status" to legal parenthood. Littrell said that if Day died, Zayden Strickland could end up in state custody, and said Day could allow another adult to adopt Zayden Strickland without Chris Strickland having any say.
"It simply doesn't protect this child in the way that other children born to married couples are protected," Littrell said.
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