restricted access Transforming Law's Family: The Legal Recognition of Planned Lesbian Motherhood (review)
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Transforming Law's Family: The Legal Recognition of Planned Lesbian Motherhood. By Fiona Kelly (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).

In the way of the best socio-legal scholarship, Fiona Kelly's new book combines empirical research, theoretical engagement, and critical awareness of law's limits. Transforming Law's Family contributes substantially to the Canadian and international literature on lesbian mothering, gay men and lesbians' efforts to secure family recognition, and the interaction between official and unofficial regulation.1 The book's major contributions are threefold. One is the overview of lesbian mothers' "legal and social context"2 and the critical review of developments by which gay men and lesbians in Canada have achieved legal recognition of their adult intimate relationships and their connections with their children.3 Both chapters combine careful synthesis of legal developments and the state of the law with critique. While addressing the legal problems facing planned lesbian parents and surveying judicial decisions, Kelly notes that only the legislature of Quebec has addressed planned lesbian parenting involving known donors by means of comprehensive legislation.4 Chapter 1 examines the "resurgent interest in fathers, and biological fathers in particular"5 and the challenges to "lesbian mothers in the era of fathers' rights."6 Chapter 2 draws on lesbian feminist scrutiny of the push for same-sex marriage to present the "quiet critique" of the lesbian and gay equality-seeking movement.7 This critique "suggests that by seeking inclusion within the family on the basis of formal equality or sameness, lesbians and gay men validate and perpetuate the hierarchies, inequalities, and oppressions that characterize traditional familial ideology."8

The critical eye on the parentage question is especially distinctive. Are efforts to secure parenting rights for lesbians subject to critique, Kelly wonders, in a way that is similar to the quest for same-sex marriage? She notes that the vulnerability of [End Page 482] children—third parties—may distinguish parenting from adult couple recognition. Law reform is necessary, despite its assimilationist tinges, in virtue of the urgency of formally recognizing those who parent a child. She nevertheless advocates critical alertness to the unintended effects of formal equality strategies on the parenting front. Lesbian mothers should view themselves "as women who have an interest in protecting all forms of family."9

The second major contribution—arguably the book's heart—lies in the two chapters that present the findings of qualitative research with lesbian mothers. Kelly conducted thirty-six semi-structured interviews with women in Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. Chapter 3 presents the women's definitions of "queer kinship," including how the mothers understand their relationships with their partners, other family members, and their children's sperm donors. Chapter 4 reports their views on engagement with law reform, including how law might take their family practices into account. These evocative chapters are a gripping read.

The complex and constructed character of parental roles emerges as a major theme. The interviews revealed a subtle range of views about the spectrum running from sperm donor to "father."10 Consistent with earlier studies by other researchers,11 Kelly's respondents reported efforts to "tie in" the non-biological mother.12 In addition, however, some reported that "parenting by the biological mother was similarly constructed"—security in the maternal role depended on the ongoing performance of caring.13 There is a fascinating detailed discussion of two families who "sought to deviate quite dramatically from traditional norms" but found it difficult "to assert an oppositional family life."14 In one family, a pair of politically conscious lesbians who were resisting the traditional family found themselves to be raising their son in what outsiders read, against their wishes, "as a traditional nuclear family. Their outward appearance belies their actual beliefs, but they can do little to change the perception."15 In the other family situation, a birth mother had spun complex kin relations—her child had multiple parent figures and she co-parented the child of a different-sex couple—in a way that far exceeded the grasp of the current social and legal lexicon.16

The respondents' views on law reform are ambivalent and nuanced. Most of them prioritized legal recognition of...