July 3, 2012 -- California, the battleground state for the arguments for and against same-sex marriage, is now considering an unconventional law that would allow children to be legally granted more than two parents.
The bill -- SB1476 -- would apply equally to men and women, and to homosexual or heterosexual relationships. Proposed by State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, it has passed the Senate and awaits an Assembly vote.
Leno cites the evolving American family, which includes surrogacy arrangements, same-sex marriages and reproductive techniques that involve multiple individuals.
"The bill brings California into the 21st century, recognizing that there are more than 'Ozzie and Harriet' families today," Leno told the Sacramento Bee, which first reported the story.
Leno told ABCNews.com that he recognized a "problem" in the legal system in 2011 when an appellate court placed a girl in foster care when her legally married parents -- two lesbians -- could not care for her.
The child was taken into state custody when one of her mothers was jailed and the nonbiological mother was hospitalized.
The court did not have the authority to appoint the girl's biological father, with whom she had a relationship, as a legal parent. That third parent could have "benefitted the well-being of the child," said Leno.
"We are not touching the definition of a parent under the current law," said Leno. "When a judge recognizes that a child is likely to find his or her way into foster care and if there is an existing parent who qualifies as a legal parent, why not have the law when it is required to protect the well-being of the child?"
Parents would have to qualify under all legal standards and agree on custody, visitation and child support before a judge could divide up responsibilities.
Several other states, including Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maine and the District of Columbia, recognize more than two parents.
"Most children have at most two parents, but some children have more than two people in their lives who have been a child's parent in every way," says Leno in his fact sheet on the bill. "For example, a child raised from birth by a biological mother and a non-biological father may also have a relationship with his or her biological father.
"In such a situation, the child may consider both adults in the home to be parents, as well as his or her biological father. In such a case, it may be in the child's best interests to have a legally protected relationship with all three of the parental figures in his or her life."
Glenn T. Stanton, director of Global Family Formation Studies for the conservative group Focus on the Family, argues that the bill appears to advocate for children's rights, but in reality gives adults legal protection to create "radical families."
"We hear all this celebratory talk about 'new families,' but there is no sociological, psychological or medical data showing any of these new family forms have served to the elevate the general physical, mental, educational or developmental well-being of children in any meaningful way," said Stanton.
"That job is best done for children by their own mother and father," he said.
But Leno argues that a new law would address more than just same-sex families, including one in which a man raises a nonbiological child with a woman, but the child also has a relationship with the biological father.
A lesbian couple, for example, might also want to include a male friend who provided sperm for the conception of their child as a legal parent.
Leno maintains that it is in the best interest of a child to designate multiple parents to provide financial support, health insurance and other state benefits.
Not to do so can have "disastrous emotional, psychological, and financial consequences for the child," according to Leno.
Adoptive Families Might Use Law
Such a law might serve not only same-sex families, but adoptive ones as well, where there may be a relationship with a biological parent.
However, Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, said situations where the law might be applicable are "pretty limited."
"Most people don't aim for this and don't need it," he said. "It's an arrangement that's created for specific circumstances -- but I don't see a big trend here."
"People in the adoption world get very concerned about a law like this," said Pertman. "One of the concerns they have about open adoptions is co-parenting and it simply is not. There are circumstances where there is a real need and individual cases where it serves the needs of the child. That should be the focus, to have a law that permits the child to get what he or she needs."
And some legal experts in California question the impact of such a law on an array of issues like tax deductions and wrongful death suits.
Leno acknowledges that the law might be applied in "rare circumstances" and only when it is required "for the best interests of the child."
"Some of the hyperbolic corners of the opposition are suggesting there could be four, six or eight parents," he said. "But I think that it will not be used when a child has too many parents, but when there are too few."
The bill was co-sponsored by the University of San Diego School of Law's Children's Advocacy Institute and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.