The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on Thursday the state must recognize the non-birth mother to the child of a divorced lesbian couple for parenting rights and not an anonymous sperm donor.
In a 15-page decision on behalf of the court, Mississippi Associate Justice David Ishee finds Christina Strickland has parenting rights because she acted prior to the divorce as parent to the child, identified as Z.S., even though Kimberly Day was the birth mother.
“All this in the record shows that Kimberly’s original representation was that Christina was Z.S.’s equal coparent, and that Christina relied on this representation in changing her position,” Ishee writes. “To now allow Kimberly to challenge Christina’s parentage of Z.S. undoubtedly will cause injury to the child.”
As a result of the ruling, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the decision of the chancery court that ruled Strickland wasn’t a full parent and remand the case for a custody agreement consistent with the ruling.
Ishee writes the potential for injury is “particularly clear” because Strickland had to face the possibility Day would seek to have the child adopted by a new spouse and “with an inferior in loco parentis status, could do nothing about it.”
“At bottom, to deny Christina the relationship she has built with Z.S. would be a miscarriage of justice,” Ishee writes. “And so, we find Christiana is stopped from challenging Christina’s parenting rights as to Z.S., as this position is wholly inconsistent with her earlier position, which held Christina out to be the parent of Z.S.”
In a statement, Strickland said the ruling marks a “great day” and asserts she has rights as a parent just as she would have if she were in an opposite-sex relationship.
“Even though I’ve been a mom since the beginning, taking care of them and loving them, today the court made me their parent in every sense of the word,” Strickland said. “It is a relief that my status as a parent in my son’s life can never be questioned or stripped away.”
Strickland and Day were a same-sex couple legally married in Massachusetts in 2009, but resided in Mississippi. After their marriage they had one child through adoption, then sought to have a child through artificial insemination with Day as the birth mother. However, the couple separated in 2013 and Day entered into a new relationship, this time with a man.
At first, Strickland continued to visit and provide support to both children, but Day decided to cut off all contact in 2015. When they divorced in 2016, the chancery court blocked Kim’s new spouse from adopting the children, awarded Strickland visitation rights and ordered her to pay child support for both children. However, the court also ruled that Strickland wasn’t the full legal parent to Z.S. because the anonymous sperm donor superseded her rights as the second parent.
Ishee writes the chancery court “erred in finding” an anonymous sperm donor has rights to the child and not the spouse of the women married to the birth mother when the child was conceived.
“Make no mistake — affirmance here arguably would impose parentage, and all its responsibilities, on anonymous sperm donors who contribute to assist families in achieving pregnancy — perhaps creating a chilling effect on sperm donation,” Ishee writes. “Furthermore, it effectively would leave many children conceived through this method with one legal parent. And in the tragic situation in which a mother dies during childbirth or before a proper termination proceeding — it would leave the child an orphan. Such a notion is untenable and certainly contrary to the public policy of the state.”
Strickland’s appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court was filed by Lambda Legal, which argued the chancery court’s decision wasn’t in the best interests of the child and violated the right to due process under the U.S. Constitution.
Beth Littrell, counsel for Lambda Legal, said in a statement the decision has implications not just for Strickland, but same-sex couples throughout Mississippi.
“Today’s ruling is confirmation for thousands of married couples in Mississippi who know that the love, care, and responsibility that comes with being a mom or dad goes far beyond the blood relationship of an anonymous sperm donor,” Littrell said. “The Court recognized that marriage equality as the law of the land in Mississippi. No matter the gender of your spouse, all married couples and their children now receive the same respect for their parent-child relationships when they bring children into their families through reproductive technology.”