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A Radical, Subaltern Chorus: Saidiya Hartman’s Album of Rebellious Young Black Women

Saidiya Hartman opens her powerful and lyrical Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval with an epigraph from Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s Quicksand: “She was, she knew, in a queer indefinite way, a disturbing factor.” As I read Hartman’s brilliant narrative recreation of the voices, words, and intimate lives of “young black women,” at the turn of the twentieth century, as they sought “to create autonomous and beautiful lives, to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them, and to live as if they were free” (P. xiii), another Harlem Renaissance novel came to mind: Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1929). The desire to live free also preoccupies Angela Murray, the young Black woman whose own intimate history and experiments in living are at the center of Plum Bun. While Murray has more economic and family resources and class privilege than the young Black women whose lives Hartman makes palpably and poignantly real to readers, this fictional heroine and these women alike perceive the bar that “the color line” poses—at every turn— to living “as if” free. “Freedom!” is the most frequent “note” in the “melody of living” of which Angela dreams, and she perceives that “[c]olour or rather the lack of it seemed . . . the one absolute prerequisite” to that dream life and to the “difference between freedom and fetters.” (Fauset 13, 137.)

The “fetters” created by the color line’s racial caste system constrain yet fuel the subjects of Hartman’s narrative: young Black women on a quest to rebel and “live free” in the decades between 1890 and 1935, in New York City and Philadelphia. To construct her dazzling portraits of those “wayward” lives, Hartman uses a method of “close narration” by attempting to “inhabit the intimate dimensions” of those lives and place “the voice of narrator and character in inseparable relation.” (Hartman, P. xiii) She draws on “a vast range of archival materials” to “convey the sensory experience of the city and to capture the rich landscape of black social life.” Such archival sources treat these young women as “a problem,” and include “the journals of rent collectors; surveys and monographs of sociologists; trial transcripts; slum photographs; reports of vice investigators, social workers, and parole officers; interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists; and prison case files.” (P. xiv.) Countering that diagnosis, Hartman insists on the beauty of these experiments in trying to live free, arguing that these “young black women in open rebellion” show “utopian longings” and provide “an intimate chronicle of black radicalism;” such radicalism included “free” motherhood, intimate partnerships outside of marriage, and “queer and outlaw passions.” (P. xv.) As the archives reveal, the regulatory apparatus of governmental and quasi-governmental officials labelled and punished these young Black women for their supposed deviance from marital, gender, and sexual norms.

The expansive use of the police power to protect public morals is particularly sobering. For example, under the Tenement House Law, young Black women were surveilled and arrested “as vagrants and prostitutes” simply on a police officer’s testimony. (P. 249.) A prostitution charge could follow a young woman inviting a man into her home for a drink. Given the police invasion of Black homes in 2020, it is chillingly resonant to read of the disrespect a century ago for Black homes as private spaces: in a “jump raid,” plainclothes officers, “having identified a suspicious person and place, knocked at the door of a private residence, and when it opened, they forced their way across the threshold or they followed behind a woman as she entered to her apartment.” (P. 252.) Hartman recounts that Elinora Harris (the future Billie Holiday) and her mother were arrested in a neighborhood sweep. (P. 252.) “Walking while black” had its counterpart in the 1920s, when, as Holiday recalled, women like her mother, employed as maids or office cleaners, “were picked up on the street on their way home from work and charged with prostitution.” (P. 254.)

Hartman compellingly describes the “incredible ferocity” of this “state surveillance and police power” as “the afterlife of slavery.” (P. 256.) The young women targeted by this regulatory power perceived that such law was “designed to keep them in place,” even as they “refused to live in its clauses and parentheses.” (P. 256.) The consequences of this regulatory power fell most harshly on Black female minors: an adult woman convicted of prostitution might be sentenced to 60 days at the workhouse, but, under the Wayward Minors Act, “a girl convicted as a wayward minor might receive an indeterminate sentence of three years” at a reformatory. (P. 223.)

Racism and sexism intertwined in the application of such status offense laws: between 1882-1925, “only young women were adjudged wayward under” wayward minor laws, and Black girls were “more likely to be punished and . . . punished more harshly” than white girls. Thus, “state racism exacerbated the reach” of such laws, “marking blackness as disorderly and criminal.” (P. 225.) Hartman’s empathetic reconstruction of the desires and interrupted lives of these “wayward” girls — subject to the “civil death” of confinement in racially segregated and brutal reformatories (P. 264)— offers a valuable counterpoint to portrayals of Progressive-era efforts around juvenile justice, with the (unrealized) ideal of a prototypical wayward (white) boy in need of the counsel of a kindly judge.

As a family law scholar, I found sobering how Progressive-era social reformers in Northern cities viewed maintaining segregation and preventing “interracial intimacy or even proximity” as necessary for public health and morals: “the Girl problem and the Negro problem reared their heads” together, finding “a common target in the sexual freedom of young women.” (P. 20.) Further, vice commissions diagnosed interracial association as “disorderly” even when the purpose was “to undo the color line.” (P. 249.)

The book is a tour de force in its richly and vividly imagined narratives, which allow these young Black women hitherto “credited with nothing” and “deemed unfit for history” to emerge with agency and vision—as “radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise.” (P. xv.) Part of that quest, Hartman persuasively shows, is the desire for aesthetic beauty and pleasure. As Professor Eddie Bruce-Jones observes, in showing “why beauty is a vital component of the narrative,” Hartman has also “created a beautiful experiment of her own.”

“The beauty of the chorus” is a phrase Hartman uses skillfully to portray the goals of women like Mabel Hampton, who left domestic service – the expected employment for young Black women – to pursue romance and adventure through joining a chorus line and dancing in cabarets, where she could shake off (however briefly) the “assault of racism.” (P. 307.) Mabel’s intimate experiments in loving other women also dared to cross the color line. Hartman places Mabel amidst a “glamorous world” of other Black women, such as Gladys Bentley, Jackie Mabley, and Ethel Waters, whose artistic lives defied gender and sexuality conventions. Mabel’s chorus line did not lead to the concert career she sought; instead, in middle age, Mabel faced the fate she evaded as a teen: entering the “Bronx slave market” for day laborers, “settled on a crate among the group of domestics as they waited for housewives from Yonkers and Westchester.” (P. 343.)

Hartman closes by envisioning a chorus of the many young women whose voices need to be heard, whose stories are terrible and beautiful, and who “transform[] the terms of the possible.” (P. 349.) The Greek etymology of “chorus,” Hartman observes, is to “dance within an enclosure.” This image of “acts of collaboration and improvisation that unfold within the space of enclosure” well conveys “the long history of struggle, the ceaseless practice of black radicalism and refusal,” and “the tumult and upheaval of open rebellion.” The chorus, with its many songs asking how to live free, “propels transformation” and is “an incubator of possibility.” This chorus so vividly presented by Hartman offers a rich resource for legal scholars seeking to expand the canon to include missing and marginalized voices in a way attentive to the intersection of race and gender discrimination. At a time when legal scholars and teachers are seeking to make antiracism and reckoning with systemic racism more central to their pedagogy and writing, Hartman’s intricate reconstruction of this unrelenting apparatus and its harsh and unjust toll on the lives of young Black women is a powerful and sobering text.

Cite as: Linda C. McClain, A Radical, Subaltern Chorus: Saidiya Hartman’s Album of Rebellious Young Black Women, JOTWELL (February 26, 2021) (reviewing Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019)), https://family.jotwell.com/a-radical-subaltern-chorus-saidiya-hartmans-album-of-rebellious-young-black-women/.

Bargaining in the Shadow of (Confusing) Law: The Case of Surrogacy Contracts

Rachel Rebouché, Contracting Pregnancy, 105 Iowa L. Rev. 1591 (2020).

The literature on surrogacy regulation has recently taken a turn towards a more pragmatic understanding of the field. Scholars have attempted to describe surrogacy regulation as it already exists and analyze the different interests involved, under conditions of legal fragmentation and uncertainty.1 Rachel Rebouché’s Contracting Pregnancy is an important contribution in this vein.

The article contributes several advances to our knowledge of surrogacy contracts in action. First, Rebouché analyzes statutory developments alongside standard terms included in surrogacy contracts. Doing so allows her to notice a tension between the law on the books and the law in action. The newest statutes attempt to balance the interests of intended parents and surrogates, recognizing parentage for the former, while safeguarding the surrogate’s autonomy interests, by emphasizing that decisions about termination ultimately reside with the surrogate. Lawyers involved in the drafting process, however, regularly include language “that contradicts state efforts to level the playing field for parties.” (P. 1596.) Rebouché finds this recurrent tension between state statutes and contractual language in the areas of pre-pregnancy genetic testing, prenatal screening and testing, lifestyle decisions during pregnancy, and abortion. In other words, the contracts that lawyers draft regularly try to vest intended parents with decision-making power over these areas, against the backdrop of a statutory (and constitutional) framework that vests that authority on the surrogate.

The second contribution of the article is related to Rebouché’s attempt to understand how and why this gap occurs. Why do lawyers insist on including clauses that are likely unenforceable, either through specific performance or through damages? Rebouché pushes us to understand this practice in the context of the literature on relational contracts, in which the negotiation and inclusion of certain clauses in a contract have value as a vehicle for obtaining valuable information about the other party and building trust between parties who will need to collaborate over a period of time if the arrangement is to succeed. (P. 1631.) Noticing that surrogacy contracts may share characteristics with other types of contracts that create long-term relations and studying them under a regular contracts lens is a move against family law exceptionalism that is likely to contribute to more clarity about what this legal practice actually looks like on the ground.

A third contribution of the article is a detailed account of the role that healthcare professionals, lawyers, and surrogacy agents play in managing conflict between parties in a surrogacy contract. Rebouché’s analysis brings a legal sociological approach that is attentive to the multiplicity of incentives and motivations that may be present beyond profit, such as reputational integrity and ethics, at different stages of the process. One of the more interesting observations is that the balance of power between intended parents and surrogates shifts at different points in the process, with the surrogate gaining more of it as a pregnancy takes hold. The fertility agencies and the lawyers often associated with the agencies mediate to balance out these shifts in power, in order to maximize the chances that the arrangement will not devolve into a conflict. This often means keeping the intended parents’ micromanagement of the surrogate under control and safeguarding the surrogate’s autonomy, while maximizing the chances that the surrogate will actually collaborate with obligations she signed up for, even if unenforceable, such as waiving her medical confidentiality in order to allow access to pregnancy information for the intended parents.

Despite the observation that the vast majority of surrogacy arrangements don’t seem to devolve into a court battle, Rebouché remains troubled by the role of professional intermediaries, calling for more transparency about the process these professionals use to balance the shifting power dynamics in the relationship. In this vein, her suggestion that perhaps structuring fertility agencies as non-profits with a right to receive compensation for their services is an interesting one that calls for more examination, perhaps in future work.

Rebouché also cautions about the pitfalls of genetic tests in the context of surrogacy. She focuses on non-invasive prenatal testing (or NIPT), which currently detects big genetic abnormalities, such as a missing or an extra gene, through a blood test in the first trimester. The test is likely to be further developed in the future to reveal detailed genetic information, creating possibilities of termination on the basis of preferred traits rather than seriously debilitating illnesses or conditions. Rebouché suggests that the bioethical concerns on the test might be even more troubling in the context of surrogacy. She notes: “[C]oncerns about the use of prenatal genetic testing when controlled or heavily influenced by intended parents might be exacerbated. An intended parent is not pregnant and does not make testing decisions as a pregnant person might, perhaps feeling distance between themselves and the pregnancy without the physical experience of gestation.” (P. 1619.)

Concerns about frivolous demands for testing, however, could be less, not more, acute in cases of surrogacy, especially if protracted infertility is the background. Even when the background is single people or gay couples attempting to become parents with a genetic link, the financial and emotional cost of the process and the very genetic essentialism that Rebouché cautions against could result in significant compunctions about frivolous demands on the surrogate’s bodily autonomy and perhaps more acceptance of a less than “perfect” genetic combination. After all, it may be easier to imagine there will be a next pregnancy at all if what it takes to get to a pregnancy is sex-rather than hiring a soccer team of professionals for the cost of a small house in a rural area. While it is uncertain which way this will actually cut, without more evidence, the assumption about surrogacy exacerbating these concerns may need more finetuning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that NIPT in the surrogacy process may lead to less, not more, pregnancy testing, and is especially useful in avoiding more invasive procedures such as amniocentesis, hence less pressure on the surrogate’s bodily autonomy.

Overall, the article opens up a rich vein of inquiry into surrogacy contracts that is bound to prove fruitful. One possible future theoretical investigation would be further formalizing the bargaining dynamics involved in negotiating, executing, and enforcing a surrogacy contract, by examining further, the actual fallback positions of each party involved. Another fruitful direction would be digging deeper into the analogies between surrogacy and other kinds of contracts, as well as other mechanisms for perhaps evening out the parties’ bargaining power borrowed from even further afield. Labor law anyone?

  1. See, e.g., Courtney G. Joslin, (Not) Just Surrogacy, __ Cal. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2021), available at SRRN and previously reviewed on Jotwell by Douglas NeJaime.
Cite as: Philomila Tsoukala, Bargaining in the Shadow of (Confusing) Law: The Case of Surrogacy Contracts, JOTWELL (January 26, 2021) (reviewing Rachel Rebouché, Contracting Pregnancy, 105 Iowa L. Rev. 1591 (2020)), https://family.jotwell.com/bargaining-in-the-shadow-of-confusing-law-the-case-of-surrogacy-contracts/.

Borders as Burdens

B. Jessie Hill, The Geography of Abortion Rights, _ Geo. L.J. _ (forthcoming 2021), available at SSRN.

In The Geography of Abortion Rights, Professor B. Jessie Hill provides a novel, timely mapping of the “geographic dimension of abortion restrictions.” (P. 4.) Some restrictions rely on borders to serve as actual barriers, such as laws that attempt to restrict adults from transporting young people across state lines for abortion services. The effects of other laws, which force clinics to close, fix the borders of “abortion deserts” around which patients travel hundreds of miles to reach the nearest provider. Still other laws, such as medically-unnecessary ultrasounds, trespass bodily borders by requiring “visual and narrative mapping of physical spaces within the woman’s body.” (P. 5.)

In all and more of these examples, Hill argues that “regulating place is a way of subtly drawing lines of social exclusion and inclusion and re-inscribing social inequality.” (P. 6.) By this, she suggests that states, under the guise of protecting a patient’s health and safety, use law to demarcate borders that marginalize abortion care. The effects are uneven and regional, and the burdens of inaccessible care fall hardest on people who already find complying with state restrictions costly and difficult.

Hill spends a significant portion of the article analyzing state laws governing abortion facilities and providers that are designed to force clinics to close. As Hill explains, standalone clinics are the almost-sole providers of abortion in the country. Because of clinics’ isolation from health care generally, legislators easily can target abortion clinics through regulations that providers and clinics cannot and (in terms of patients’ health and safety) need not meet.

Mandating that providers obtain hospital admitting privileges, a restriction that has been at the center of two Supreme Court decisions, provides an example. Hill demonstrates that states typically defend regulation as neutral and apolitical; these laws do not ban abortion outright. Yet abortion rarely entails surgical intervention or necessitates a hospital bed, making privileges difficult if not impossible for most abortion providers to acquire.

As Hill highlights, the Supreme Court struck down Texas’s and Louisiana’s privileges requirements by concentrating on the lived consequences of law, particularly for rural and low income patients. The Court held that when clinics close, patients will have longer drives, more expense if pregnancy progresses, more logistical hurdles to overcome—like arranging childcare, time of work, transportation. A plurality of the Court raised similar concerns in the recent case, June Medical Services v. Russo. Even though five justices could not agree on the proper application of the undue burden test, both the judgment of the Court and Chief Justice Roberts’s concurrence concluded that a law that would shutter all but one clinic in Louisiana was an undue burden on the right to abortion.

Of course, courts have not uniformly struck down restrictions on providers and clinics. As Hill writes, “the line of causality [between the existence of onerous facility regulations and reduced abortion access] is not always obvious.” (P. 27.) One need only look to the dissent penned by Justice Alito in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which argued that clinic closures are not the fault of a privileges requirement; instead, Texas’s clinic closures are tied to provider shortages and decreasing rates of abortion.

Hill responds to the problem of causality by reimagining the application of constitutional doctrines, such as the right to travel or state action. For example, laws forcing women to leave the state to exercise a constitutional right contravene, as Hill proposes, a right not to travel. The result, were courts to embrace such an approach, would be a constitutional guarantee for a minimum level of abortion access within state borders. But the willingness of courts to recognize such rights is also contingent on location: on the federal level, abortion rights depend on the district in which one files and the circuit that hears an appeal. And, as Hill notes, in a country where Roe is overturned and numerous states outlaw abortion, place becomes all the more important. In the near future, legal abortion rights could depend entirely on the states: half will permit abortion and just under half, concentrated in the south and Midwest, will probably ban abortion.

Constitutional challenges to abortion restrictions may go only so far in addressing the unequal distribution of abortion care because courts may be unable or unwilling to make geography matter less. In this regard, Hill might explore other avenues of delivering abortion services together with or beyond constitutional litigation.

The remote delivery of medication abortion, though far from a perfect solution, can help erase the stark lines that abortion restrictions draw and that future bans might impose. A physician licensed in a state (even if not physically present in that state) can counsel (online or over the telephone), prescribe, and, during the pandemic, mail pills to induce a medication abortion. Federal and state laws, however, have not made the expansion of remote care easy. Nineteen states, for example, require a physician to be present upon delivery of medication abortion. The FDA, through one of its safety protocols, requires patients to obtain the first drug in a medication abortion (mifepristone) in-person at the practice location of a certified provider. The rule effectively bars teleabortion, which is one reason why a federal district court suspended it for the duration of the COVID-19 national emergency.

A new administration could abandon the FDA requirement number of state legislatures already have expanded teleabortion within and across their borders. The challenge moving forward is building capacity for health care providers to prescribe and to deliver medication abortion over state lines. Place will still matter, but it could matter less with abortion-supportive policies and increased resources to help ensure access to abortion care.

That is to say, while constitutional arguments are important, political and legislative action may more immediately reconfigure the map of abortion access. And that is, ultimately, one of the central aims of Professor Hill’s article—upending borders to protect the right to abortion, an issue all the more important if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Cite as: Rachel Rebouché, Borders as Burdens, JOTWELL (November 17, 2020) (reviewing B. Jessie Hill, The Geography of Abortion Rights, _ Geo. L.J. _ (forthcoming 2021), available at SSRN), https://family.jotwell.com/borders-as-burdens/.

Rounding the Square Peg: Matsumura’s Redefining of Status Regulatory Schemes

Kaiponanea T. Matsumura, Breaking Down Status, 89 Wash. U. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming Jan. 2021), available at SSRN.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the precarity in which millions of people live in the United States. In his forthcoming article, Breaking Down Status, Kaiponanea T. Matsumura shows us how this precarity is intrinsically linked to the law’s inevitable (or perhaps willful) insistence on regulating important social, economic, and personal relationships through a status-based regulatory system. To discuss the obsolescence and ineffectiveness of this scheme and how it should be reformed to one in which status is defined independently from contract and adapted to the current social and legal landscape, Matsumura uses as a case study two statuses that are seldom thought today to be interrelated: worker classification and marital status.

This approach in and of itself is a great contribution to the scholarship of status. By taking this viewpoint, Matsumura is able to survey the typology of status. While dissecting the taxonomy of status, he establishes how the concept has been applied interchangeably to refer to interrelated legal and non-legal phenomena. This ambiguity has obscured the scholarly discussions about status-based regulation by selectively focusing on one of its aspects. As laid out in the article, this selective approach can be seen best in the social normative vis a vis legal effects critiques to Obergefell.

Yet, Matsumura has more in his hat than just a taxonomic study of status to enhance our understanding of its problems in our current regulatory scheme. After expanding on the undertheorized concept of status, Matsumura examines gig workers and non-marriages. By summarizing the transformation of romantic relationships (i.e. the rise on cohabitation and the corresponding decline in marriage) and in the market (i.e. the decline of the employer-employee relationship and the rise of non-long-term employees), the article shows how the regulation of marriage and employment have grown obsolete in light of the current social landscape. The lagging between how statuses are defined and how people have rearranged their relationships make existing legal approaches to statuses obsolete, resulting in an ineffective regulatory scheme. Its ineffectiveness is best epitomized by the remarks of a judge trying to apply employee regulations to Lyft’s gig workers by saying that it was like being “handed a square peg and asked to choose between two round holes.”

The square pegs are the current relationships workers established with their employers and the growing number of non-marital relationships. The round holes are the vestiges of the Blackstonian households. Matsumura explains how the status regulation of workers and non-marriages are, even after their many changes, still embedded in the regulation of master-servant and husband-wife relationships, respectively. This uncovering not only challenges our notions that the market and marriage have grown in opposite directions notwithstanding their common origin in the pater familias, but it also adds to the debunking of Henry James Sumner Maine’s long-held evolutionary wisdom that the law evolves from status to contract.

The article shows that any changes we have experienced in the regulation of status towards a contractual scheme by adding more customization power to the parties is always halted by the need to balance parties’ autonomy against lawmakers’ interests in regulating efficiently and addressing vulnerability. This inescapable reality of the conflicting interests between moving to contract to grant greater control to individuals over the legal consequences of their relationships and the lawmakers’ wishes to advance socio-political interests such as privatizing welfare, protecting parties with less bargaining power, and dictating the social meaning of the relationships themselves forces contracts to fold back into status.

Consequently, Matsumura questions the desirability of moving to a full contractual scheme and defends the theory that statuses, albeit inevitable, can be effective and powerful regulatory tools. Here, perhaps, lies the greatest contribution of the article. Matsumura invites us to look at the regulation through status independently from contract and proffers a multi-layer design to think of its reform.

He identifies three axes that in the status literature have been discussed and critiqued in isolation. The first axis (aggregation/disaggregation) addresses whether the bundle of legal consequences associated with a status are kept together or disentangled. The second axis (binarism/pluralism) focuses on the number of categories under which an individual could be classified. The final axis (boundary policing) deals with the entering and exiting of the status. In other words, its concerns are when and how to determine whether an individual falls within the status and how people transition in and out of their statuses.

With this taxonomy, Matsumura attempts to identify design questions to guide us in our reform efforts of romantic and work relationships (and beyond) which would not focus on a selective or single aspect of status. He invites us with these categories to find combinations to round the square peg or square the round holes so that we can disrupt our regulatory scheme.

This invitation resonated with me in multiple levels. First, as a proposer of abolishing marriage and using other proxies to regulate the granting of privileges and rights to families, including non-traditional families such as cohabiting couples, polyamorous units, and non-sexual families, I questioned myself about whether I have been engaging in selective critiques of statuses or whether I have been really re-thinking marital status outside the Blackstonian household in a comprehensive way. It also invited me to rethink in more detail the third relationship of the Blackstonian household, that of the father and the children, and how we can disrupt its status regulation.

I am sure reading Matsumura’s article will invite similar and more profound reflections from family law scholars and authors in other areas. But most importantly, it will be a great departing point for rethinking how we regulate essential social, economic, and personal relationships to construct a more egalitarian world.


Editor’s Notes: For another review of this article, also published today, see Brian Bix, A Status Breakdown, JOTWELL (November 3, 2020).

Also, please note that Jotwell’s Contributing Editors make their own selections as to what to review; review topics are not assigned by the Section Editors.

Cite as: Aníbal Rosario-Lebrón, Rounding the Square Peg: Matsumura’s Redefining of Status Regulatory Schemes, JOTWELL (November 3, 2020) (reviewing Kaiponanea T. Matsumura, Breaking Down Status, 89 Wash. U. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming Jan. 2021), available at SSRN), https://family.jotwell.com/rounding-the-square-peg-matsumuras-redefining-of-status-regulatory-schemes/.

A Status Breakdown

Kaiponanea T. Matsumura, Breaking Down Status, __ Wash. U. L.R. __ (forthcoming 2021), available at SSRN.

One of the hottest topics in family scholarship today is the proper legal treatment of unmarried cohabiting couples. Of course, it is hardly a new topic: it has been a center of controversy at least since the Marvin v. Marvin decision almost 45 years ago. On one side, it has been argued that giving unmarried couples marriage-like rights (equitable division of property at the end of the relationship or a claim for something like alimony) would undermine the public policy favoring marriage, while also not respecting the autonomy of those who declined to marry precisely to avoid such obligations. On the other side, refusing any marriage-like rights to long-term unmarried cohabitants would arguably fail to protect vulnerable parties (in particular, those partners, usually women, who have given up careers) and create an unjust result between the parties (where often one party leaves a long-term cohabitation with much more property than the other, often after having promised that household earnings would be shared).

During the decades since Marvin v. Marvin, the number of couples cohabiting outside of marriage has increased significantly; the Census in 2018 reported that more people in the 18-24 year group were living with a partner than were living with a spouse. However, outside a handful of states (e.g., Washington State, with its status of “Committed Intimate Relationship”), and excluding the small number of couples who enter detailed written agreements, unmarried cohabitants are still treated as legal strangers. Indeed, as Kaiponanea Matsumura points out in “Breaking Down Status” – and others have pointed out as well1 – cohabitants are treated by the law worse than legal strangers, as courts will regularly refuse enforcement of informal agreements between cohabitants (exchanges are presumed to be made altruistically) that would be more likely to be enforced between strangers. (P. 58.)

In “Breaking Down Status,” Matsumura approaches the problem of how to treat long-term unmarried cohabitants indirectly, by offering an intriguing and detailed comparison between domestic relations status (married or unmarried cohabitants) and worker status (full-time employee or independent contractor). For both employment and intimate relationships, the author shows how the legal status options developed long ago, in a far different time, have come to fit current practices and expectations poorly. On the employment side, the proper characterization of gig workers (e.g., Uber and Lyft drivers) has made salient how the options of “employee” and “independent contractor” both seem problematic. Each status comes with its own bundle of benefits and disadvantages, and each falls short of the experiences or needs of most gig workers. For example, gig workers do not seem to be independent contractors in the core sense of that label, in that they often work for only one company, and their terms of employment are generally set by that company. On the other hand, gig workers often have a flexibility regarding the number of hours worked that traditional employees do not have.

In the area of domestic relations, there are many unmarried couples who hold themselves out as married, and generally follow the norms and expectations of married couples in their community. However, there are also many unmarried cohabitants whose behavior and self-perception fill the whole spectrum from “basically married” to mere “friends with benefits.” And while one might picture a partner refusing to marry as some rich man who selfishly wants to keep all the property to himself, there is also, as a number of observers have reported, the reality of single, working class mothers “reluctant to commit to a marriage-like relationship because of concerns about a partner’s income stability, expenses, and debts.”2

As Matsumura points out, status relationships tend to encapsulate a complex of autonomy, dependency, vulnerability, and oppression. An obvious reformist reaction is to argue that each situation should be judged individually, taking into account all the circumstances. This is the impulse that creates equitable exceptions to legal rules, and one also finds it in Family Law, in doctrines like equitable (de facto) parental status and equitable adoption. However, as is well known, what is gained by individual consideration comes with costs – uncertainty, unpredictability, and too much discretion to judges (keeping in mind that many judges do not share “our values” – regardless of how one fills out the content of “our values”). It is not surprising that these equitable doctrines tend to become ever more rule-like over time: to create more predictable outcomes regarding when (e.g.) equitable parental status will be granted and when it will be refused. And, as Matsumura argues, the intermediate solution of having a large variety of statuses also has difficulties: like the “numerus clausus” idea in property law (not having too many categories of property),3  having too many family categories, or allowing parties to create an infinite number of new status structures through private agreement, which can quickly lead to confusion and inefficiency.

The article draws broad lessons: that in the government’s treatment of its citizens, it is inevitable that people be divided into categories, and it is convenient if those categories – “status” categories – often contain bundles of rights and obligations. Matsumura’s take-away is clear: “Status is inevitable.” (P. 55.)

However, the article does not prescribe resigned acceptance of misfit statuses. Matsumura believes that statuses can be reformed, though he warns that the process is rarely straightforward. What solves one problem may create another; it is hard to serve well autonomy, efficiency, and dependency (or even any one of them alone – e.g., responding to vulnerability can also have the unintended effect of encouraging vulnerability). Finding the right legal response to unmarried cohabitation (and gig employees) will require creativity and hard work.


Editor’s Notes: For another review of this article, also published today, see Aníbal Rosario-Lebrón, Rounding the Square Peg: Matsumura’s Redefining of Status Regulatory Schemes, JOTWELL (November 3, 2020).

Also, please note that Jotwell’s Contributing Editors make their own selections as to what to review; review topics are not assigned by the Section Editors.

  1. E.g., Courtney G. Joslin, Autonomy in the Family, 66 UCLA L. Rev. 912 (2019).
  2. Naomi Cahn & June Carbone, Blackstonian Marriage, Gender, and Cohabitation, 51 Ariz. St. L.J. 1247, 1273 (2019).
  3. Thomas W. Merrill & Henry E. Smith, Optimal Standardization in the Law of Property: The Numerus Clausus Principle, 110 YALE L.J. 1 (2000).
Cite as: Brian Bix, A Status Breakdown, JOTWELL (November 3, 2020) (reviewing Kaiponanea T. Matsumura, Breaking Down Status, __ Wash. U. L.R. __ (forthcoming 2021), available at SSRN), https://family.jotwell.com/a-status-breakdown/.

Termination of Parental Rights of Mothers with Disabilities: The Role of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Robyn M. Powell, Susan L. Parish, Monika Mitra, Michael Waterstone & Stephen Fournier, The Americans with Disabilities Act and Termination of Parental Rights Cases: An Examination of Appellate Decisions involving Disabled Mothers, __ Yale L. & Pol'y Rev. __ (forthcoming), available on SSRN.

The right to parent is recognized by the Supreme Court as a fundamental right, but this right remains elusive for many groups, including parents with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), heralded as landmark legislation for people with disabilities, turned thirty this year. However, parents with disabilities are still not adequately protected by the ADA, especially when they are involved with the child welfare system. In a forthcoming article in the Yale Law & Policy Review, Robyn M. Powell, Susan L. Parish, Monika Mitra, Michael Waterstone, and Stephen Fournier use empirical data to demonstrate how the ADA is routinely ignored in parental termination decisions in the child welfare system and suggest ways to ensure that the parenting rights of people with disabilities are protected. The article analyzes results of an empirical study conducted by Robyn M. Powell as a part of her doctoral dissertation. It contextualizes the results of her empirical work with a rich discussion of disability law and policy. I found it striking how the authors demonstrate with data that parents with disabilities are denied a key tenet of reproductive justice, the right to parent with dignity.

The article describes how the legislative history of the ADA indicates that the ADA was designed to protect parents with disabilities, especially in child welfare proceedings. Title II of the ADA requires child welfare agencies and courts to abide by a host of requirements including: providing people with disabilities an equal opportunity to participate in services, programs, and activities; administering services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of people with disabilities; and not applying eligibility criteria that tend to screen out people with disabilities. The article notes that most importantly, the ADA requires child welfare agencies and courts to treat disabled people on a case-by-case basis, consistent with facts and objectives, and not based on stereotypes and generalizations about people with disabilities.

The article begins with a discussion of the history of eugenics in the United States that prevented people with disabilities from having and raising children. The authors examine the 1927 Buck v. Bell Supreme Court decision, in which Justice Holmes infamously noted that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” After Buck v. Bell provided the imprimatur of authority to state sterilization laws, actual use of sterilization statutes skyrocketed. For example seventeen states enacted or revised their sterilization statutes in the four years following the decision. The article describes how Buck v. Bell thus laid the foundation for over 65,000 forced sterilizations authorized by state law. The article also details how laws restricting marriage by people with disabilities prevented and continue to prevent people with certain disabilities from marrying and subsequently raising a family. Despite the obstacles people with disabilities have faced in terms of parenting, the National Council on Disability notes that at least 6.2 percent of American parents who have children under age 18 have at least one reported disability, with even higher percentages for American Indian/Alaska Native parents (13.9%) and African American parents (8.8%).

The article next describes the empirical study of 2,064 appellate termination of parental rights decisions that involved mothers with disabilities decided between 2006 and 2016. 93% of the cases studied resulted in the termination of parental rights. Future work comparing this statistic with termination of parental rights cases involving mothers who did not have disabilities would be helpful to put this number into context. The study also found that cases involving mothers with psychiatric disabilities or multiple disabilities were significantly more likely to end in the termination of parental rights than those with mothers with physical or sensory disabilities. Only six percent of the cases raised the ADA and only two percent actually found that the ADA applied. The article describes In re Hicks/Brown, a unanimous 2017 Michigan Supreme Court decision that reversed a termination of parental rights decision due to ADA violations in a case involving a mother with an intellectual disability, holding that “termination of parental rights without reasonable efforts is improper and efforts cannot be reasonable absent reasonable modifications.” (P. 15.)

By discussing the first study to conduct quantitative analyses to identify factors that predict whether the ADA is raised or applied in these cases, the authors make a significant contribution to the literature. I found the legal and policy ramifications of the study, and the normative suggestions made by the authors, to be compelling. The authors first posit that the study results may reflect a need for education and training of judges and attorneys about the ADA and confirm that the ADA is not being effectively used during termination of parental rights proceedings with parents with disabilities. The authors note that majority of mothers in this study had incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level and likely had court-appointed attorneys to represent them. The authors suggest practical strategies for ensuring that such attorneys receive ADA training and support from disability rights attorneys. They also suggest the need for better oversight and enforcement of ADA violations in the child welfare system by the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services. Finally, the authors suggest that community-based services and supports are essential reasonable modifications required by the ADA that should be provided to parents with disabilities as soon as they are involved with the child welfare system.

Although the authors did examine income and substance abuse histories as variables in their work, some sociodemographic data, such as the race of the parents, is often absent in appellate court decisions–so it could not be analyzed in this empirical work. The authors also have another forthcoming piece (which will be published in the Missouri Law Review) analyzing different variables in the same empirical study. I look forward to future work by these authors that may illuminate how race intersects with disability and poverty in child welfare decisions. Anyone interested in the “staggering inequities” people with disabilities and their families experience within the child welfare system should read this excellent piece.

Cite as: Seema Mohapatra, Termination of Parental Rights of Mothers with Disabilities: The Role of the Americans with Disabilities Act, JOTWELL (September 18, 2020) (reviewing Robyn M. Powell, Susan L. Parish, Monika Mitra, Michael Waterstone & Stephen Fournier, The Americans with Disabilities Act and Termination of Parental Rights Cases: An Examination of Appellate Decisions involving Disabled Mothers, __ Yale L. & Pol'y Rev. __ (forthcoming), available on SSRN), https://family.jotwell.com/termination-of-parental-rights-of-mothers-with-disabilities-the-role-of-the-americans-with-disabilities-act/.

When Abortion is Parenting

Greer Donley, Parental Autonomy Over Prenatal End-of-Life Decisions, __ Minn. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2020), available at SSRN.

In early 2019, controversy erupted when Virginia’s state legislature considered a bill that would loosen restrictions on abortion, including what are colloquially known as late-term abortions performed in the second and third trimester. Although such abortions are extremely rare – only 1.4 percent of abortions are performed from the twenty-first week of pregnancy and beyond, according to Planned Parenthood – people opposed to abortion used the discussion of late-term abortions to accuse the bill’s supporters of promoting infanticide. If it would be morally repugnant to, in President Trump’s words, “execute” a baby after birth, why is it not similarly repugnant to terminate a pregnancy past the point that most pregnancies are considered viable?

In her upcoming article Parental Autonomy over Prenatal End-of-Life Decisions, forthcoming in the Minnesota Law Review, Greer Donley turns this rhetorical question on its head. In many circumstances, parents have the right to decline medical care on behalf of their children. Faced with a catastrophic medical diagnosis and a plan of invasive, painful treatment with very limited chance of success, parents have the authority to make the unfathomably difficult decision to provide only palliative care and minimize their child’s suffering. Why, Donley asks, would we deny parents terminating a wanted pregnancy in the face of a devastating diagnosis the same authority?

This reframing of the late-term abortion debate is a stunningly effective and provocative move. Abortions are often condemned as cruel or selfish decisions, and late-term abortions are frequently described as particularly callous. Donley counters this description by reclaiming the label “parent” even for people terminating pregnancies and casting the decision as one motivated by love for the child. Her analysis is movingly bolstered by her use of an essay by Margot Finn, who had an abortion at 29 weeks after her baby was diagnosed with lissencephaly. As Finn described it,

The only thing that could have been worse than [my baby] dying would have been to continue knitting her small body together with my body, to keep growing bigger and bigger with her and go through a far more dangerous full-term delivery or perhaps even a C-section, should her brain swell with fluid, and then watch her be intubated and fitted with a feeding tube. The only thing worse would have been to feel personally responsible for every bit of her suffering thereafter, wishing I could give her peace and being unable to do it.

Donley argues that Finn’s decision to terminate her pregnancy to spare her child pain and an unavoidable early death is simply not captured by traditional descriptions of abortion as a privacy right.. The reason behind terminating the pregnancy is not to avoid becoming a parent too early, or to control the drastic life changes that result from pregnancy and parenthood. Instead, Donley treats such decisions as much closer to a parent declining life support or other heroic medical interventions – and to the extent that the expectant parent’s situation is meaningfully different, it is different in a way that increases the expectant parent’s decisionmaking rights.

Obviously, these decisionmaking rights are not unlimited, and Donley outlines principles to guide where her reframing would apply. A number of genetic anomalies can be diagnosed during pregnancy.. Only anomalies that result in certain death in childhood or anomalies that carry a substantial possibility of death in childhood and severe morbidity in all cases (would justify terminating the pregnancy as an exercise of parental authority, as opposed to anomalies that cause disability). This tracks how the law treats parents who choose to decline end-of-life medical care for their children: very roughly, the state may intervene if the medical treatment is minimally invasive and has a high chance of success in treating a serious condition, but has much less authority to disturb parental choices if a treatment would be disruptive, painful, and have little probability of improving the child’s prognosis.

This reframing has some potential risks in terms of how it changes the debate around abortion, which Donley rightly notes. To the extent that terminating because of a devastating medical diagnosis is a “good,” or at least an “acceptable,” reason for an abortion, it could make other non-medical reasons for terminating a pregnancy look worse. Further, if all people seeking an abortion are reframed as parents, the social judgment of such parenting decisions (and particularly mothering decisions) might become even more harsh. An even more charged conflict might result if the two parents disagree about whether to terminate the pregnancy. In the context of typical end-of-life decisionmaking for a child, both parents have equal authority, so disagreements between parents present a difficult conflict that courts might be called upon to resolve using their own assessment of the best interest of the child. In the case of prenatal end-of-life decisionmaking, Donley concludes that bodily autonomy must tip the scale in favor of the pregnant person, a tiebreaker that does not exist in the context of parents disagreeing about medical care for their child.

Finally, Donley acknowledges that there is a much deeper and broader discussion of the rights and lives of people with disabilities that her reframing touches upon. She argues that there is no objectively correct answer about where to draw a line around “when a disability is so severe that life is not worth living.” She suggests that the reproductive rights and disability rights communities can work in tandem by pushing medical, financial, and other support for parents who have children with disabilities, so that such costs do not play a role in an individual person’s decision of whether to terminate a pregnancy. That said, such an overlap in goals sidesteps the deeper question of how society recognizes the value of disabled lives. The risk of reframing abortion decisions made in dramatic circumstances as more sympathetic choices is that choices made outside of those dramatic circumstances look superficial, casual, or less justified.

To my mind, however, Donley’s argument is both a smart connection between fields of law traditionally treated as distinct and a deft rhetorical approach. Abortion is about privacy, but it is also about a lot of things that courts have not always acknowledged: gender equality, bodily integrity, and broader parenting decisions. Some people who have abortions are deciding whether to become parents, but more are making a choice about how to parent: A majority of people terminating a pregnancy have already had at least one child, and often seek an abortion because they cannot financially afford to support their family if another child is added to it. Many decisions to terminate even in the first trimester of pregnancy are in some ways a parenting decision, although they are rarely described as such. Donley takes late-term abortions and, through her label of prenatal end-of-life decision, explicitly names them as a parenting choice.

Parents seeking late-term abortions are criticized by people like President Trump as deciding to execute a baby. Donley flips that description on its head and defends what many see as the most extreme example of abortion’s harms as an incomprehensibly painful, compassionate, loving choice. Her article not only shows respect and empathy on a human level, but also offers a compelling legal shift that would grant such decisions the deference they deserve.

Cite as: Dara E. Purvis, When Abortion is Parenting, JOTWELL (July 30, 2020) (reviewing Greer Donley, Parental Autonomy Over Prenatal End-of-Life Decisions, __ Minn. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming 2020), available at SSRN), https://family.jotwell.com/when-abortion-is-parenting/.

Reproductive Exceptionalisms

Over the past four decades, people have increasingly turned to reproductive technologies to form their families. As technologies such as egg freezing, in-vitro fertilization, and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis have developed and improved, processes that were once left to chance are now subject to human control. As a result, what were once hopes—for instance, deferring childbearing until some point in the future, or having a male or female child—have transformed into expectations on the part of technology users.

Yet expectations are sometimes dashed because of avoidable human error, like mislabeling a sperm sample or failing to check liquid nitrogen levels in high-capacity freezers. As Dov Fox shows in his comprehensive new book, Birth Rights and Wrongs, courts have largely been unsympathetic to lawsuits stemming from these types of errors. Fox convincingly argues that courts should redress thwarted expectations about reproduction through the tort of reproductive negligence.

The book, an expanded and refined version of Fox’s already-influential Columbia Law Review essay, Reproductive Negligence, makes a compelling case for the recognition of a new family of torts centered around expectations about reproduction. Fox notes that some reproductive wrongs, like freezer failures, deprive people of the pregnancy or parenthood that they want. (Pp. 99-100.) Other wrongs result in the imposition of pregnancy or parenthood, for instance, because of an improperly performed sterilization. (Pp. 113-14.) Still other wrongs prevent people from having a particular type of child, like one with a desired trait or without a heritable disease. (P. 127-28.) Much like privacy torts, which have been broken into discrete claims, Fox argues that reproductive negligence takes the form of three claims: procreation deprived; procreation imposed; and procreation confounded. (Pp. 75-76). And just as the recognition of privacy torts expanded the notion of judicial redress beyond physical injury to “intangible harms to emotional tranquility or reputation,” (P. 55), so too should tort law expand to recognize interference with reproductive expectations.

But traditional conceptions of privacy torts are compatible with the bifurcated logic of the separate spheres, the assumption that the market structures economic life and the family structures affective life.1 They declare that certain facts and details, often associated with domestic life, should be kept away from the general public or should not be subject to financial exploitation. (Pp. 57-58.) Thus, they maintain the line between private and public, and reinforce the distinction between the home and the market. Reproductive negligence, by contrast, draws courts into the domestic realm to decide questions like whether the desire for a boy rather than a girl, or a white child instead of a mixed-race one, is legitimate and compensable. Given the well-documented hesitancy of courts to extend contract and tort law into the domestic sphere, it is unsurprising that courts have discounted reproductive injuries as arbitrary or fanciful (Pp. 59-62) and have deemed them impossible to value. (Pp. 141-64.)

Viewed in this light, Fox’s proposal is nothing less than an assault on the law’s exceptionalization of the family.2 Fox makes a compelling case that from a doctrinal perspective, the only thing distinguishing a botched vasectomy from a botched hip replacement, or a freezer failure at a fertility clinic from a similar failure at a wine storage facility, is that the former examples involve the creation or avoidance of familial relationships. And he disassembles common objections, for instance that babies are always blessings (Pp. 114-15), or that parents should love any child unconditionally (P. 132), showing that they do little more than assume that family relationships are somehow different and impervious to mainstream legal doctrines. This is not to say that other grounds to deny recovery for reproductive wrongs do not exist. Recognizing harms based on trait selection, for instance, may give rise to negative externalities such as stigmatizing disability or validating sex stereotypes. These harms may weigh against recovery under certain circumstances. But, at a minimum, Fox challenges the reader to come up with objections that are not the product of exceptionalism or to justify which forms of exceptionalism are valid.

That said, Fox exhibits ambivalence about the prospect of abandoning exceptionalism altogether.  To emphasize the stark inadequacy of the current legal regime, Fox notes that “[f]ew other decisions or undertakings [aside from reproduction] so shape who a man is, how he spends his days, and how he wants to be remembered.” (P. 15.) Perhaps this is true, but sentiments about the specialness of reproductive choices tend to justify differential treatment.  He also recognizes that it’s not just professionals who engage in conduct that may interfere with the other’s reproductive expectations. Intimate partners may lie about or misuse contraception, or conceal heritable traits that the other might have wanted to avoid. (Pp. 77-78.) The acts could result in similar deprivations of reproductive control. Yet Fox would set these acts aside because “[i]ntimate partners don’t owe each other a formal kind of obligation of the kind that medical specialists do to those they serve”: they do not owe each other a “duty of reproductive care.” (P. 79.) But why shouldn’t they? Distinctions such as these effectively redraw, rather than dismantle, the boundary between the spheres that makes Fox’s proposal so necessary in the first place. They take the acts that constitute reproductive negligence outside of the family sphere and place them in the economic sphere rather than questioning the division to begin with. The result is a smaller but equally robust zone in which the law does not enter.

Limiting the cause of action to professionals produces an additional type of impact. Given that the costs of involving medical professionals and other fertility experts in one’s reproductive decisions can easily run in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, one’s ability to vindicate reproductive expectations still depends on economic status. Those without the money to hire professionals will be unable to assert cognizable harms. To be clear, limiting the cause of action to professionals with formal obligations may be both doctrinally defensible and pragmatic. Moreover, the inequality it produces is not a fatal argument against recognizing reproductive negligence: one could address it by subsidizing access to reproductive technologies for all. What this particular line drawing reveals, however, is that recognizing the tort could either be a beginning or an end.  It could pave the way for a broader conception of reproductive rights, or it could retrench privilege, which is what the separation of the spheres accomplished in the first place.

  1. See, e.g., Frances E. Olsen, The Family and the Market: A Study of Ideology and Legal Reform, 96 Harv. L. Rev. 1497, 1498 (1983).
  2. See Janet Halley & Kerry Rittich, Critical Directions in Comparative Family Law: Genealogies and Contemporary Studies of Family Law Exceptionalism, 58 Am. J. Comp. L. 753, 754 (2010) (noting as a descriptive matter that families are treated as exceptional in numerous areas of the law, and that this exceptionalism produces a variety of distributional effects).
Cite as: Kaiponanea Matsumura, Reproductive Exceptionalisms, JOTWELL (July 3, 2020) (reviewing Dov Fox, Birth Rights and Wrongs: How Medicine and Technology are Remaking Reproduction and the Law (2019)), https://family.jotwell.com/reproductive-exceptionalisms/.

Kinship at the Border

Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father is historian Nara B. Milanich’s fascinating new history on the quest for paternity across time and space. Paternity is at once a history of kinship that crosses borders and a meditation of kinship at borders. It reveals something that literature has long understood: that quests—including the quest for paternity, literary and actual alike—are less about what we find at their mythic end than about what we learn about ourselves along the way. It also shows that the quest for paternity, like all quests, raises more questions than resolves them.

At its most basic, Paternity is a history of paternity testing over time and around much of the globe. The bookends of Milanich’s project are the Charlie Chaplin paternity drama that rocked 1940s San Francisco at one end (Pp. 1-8), and contemporary American family law’s multi-faceted approach to paternity in an age of DNA testing and alternative reproduction at the other (Epilogue). In between, each of Paternity’s eight chapters features paternity disputes from different parts of the world at different points in time. Some of these disputes were motivated by a desire for money, as in the fairly common cases of inheritance lawsuits and child support actions. Others were prompted by a desire for citizenship, as in the case of Chinese immigration petitions in early-twentieth-century America. Still others grew from a will to live, as in the case of Jewish racial paternity trials in Nazi Germany.

Throughout this journey, Milanich captivates readers with her explanations of the machines and methods that were recruited by science, law, and social practice in the perennial—and perennially elusive—search for the father. She describes the oscillophore, a machine that purported to determine paternity by matching “the vibrations of electrons in a drop of blood” between alleged fathers and children. (P. 36.) She recounts the practice of crystallography, which claimed to prove heredity through the “characteristic crystal pattern” of blood. (P. 38.) She discusses the reliance on human blood types as the key to unlocking the secret of parentage (Chapter 3) and tells of the ways other than blood that were deployed by law and science to read paternity on the body—methods like dactyloscopy (fingerprinting) (P. 127), odontology (the science of studying teeth structure) (P. 120), and anthropometry (the science of studying the human body and its proportions). (P. 144.) “The secret of paternity could be hidden in the tips of the fingers, the curve of the nose, a telltale mole shared by child and putative parent,” Milanich writes. Science “treated paternity like maternity, as a bodily condition that could be empirically observed.” (P. 131.)  In this sense, Milanich’s history challenges a fundamental tenet of American constitutional law: that differential treatment of fathers and mothers is permissible precisely because the male body, unlike the female body, is thought to conceal indicia of parenthood.1

No less absorbing than Paternity’s history of paternity disputes across much of the world is its engagement with the question of kinship at the border. Sometimes, this is a literal border, as detailed in the riveting chapter on the United States government’s targeted use of blood group testing on Chinese immigration petitioners (as opposed to petitioners from other countries) to weed out the fraudulent claims of “paper sons” (Chapter 8). More often, though, Paternity presses the question of kinship at symbolic borders, and the symbolic border that appears to interest Milanich the most is that which exists between biological and social paternity. It is here where Paternity really shines, offering invaluable insights for legal readers interested in the regulation of the family in a world where alternative reproduction and novel family formation have led to ever-more-diverse varieties of social and biological kinship.

In Paternity’s Prologue, Milanich tells readers that “despite the unprecedented power of modern genetic science, paternity remains ensnarled in a thicket of unresolved social, economic, and political questions.” (P. 9.) Every chapter that follows debunks the idea that the history of paternity charts an evolution from performance to nature; from fiction to fact; from social paternity, embodied in legal doctrines like the marital presumption, to biological paternity, revealed through the marvels of science. Milanich shows that as the science of paternity testing grew more sophisticated and the fact of biological paternity became more accessible, social and political factors retained their power, often increasing, not decreasing, in significance.

For example, despite the availability of blood group evidence to disprove paternity in the early twentieth century, French courts “rejected [it] as ‘contrary to the general system of French law’ in which paternity was ‘not susceptible to direct proof’ and only to social ‘presumptions.’” (P. 115.) In both civil law and common law countries, “biological evidence ran aground on the shoals of social paternity” (P. 207), and biological evidence was often suppressed to avoid inconvenient truths, particularly when interracial relationships were involved.

On this last point, consider Chapter 7, which recounts the absorbing story behind an infamous lawsuit brought by an Italian husband, Remo Cipolli, against his wife, Quinta Orsini, who gave birth to a son whose biological father was an African-American GI stationed in Pisa following the city’s liberation by the Allies in 1944. Despite overwhelming biological and testimonial evidence that Cipolli was not his son’s biological father, a court in Pisa refused to credit it, ruling that Cipolli was the boy’s legal parent. For Milanich, the Cipolli case shows that sometimes biological paternity yielded to social paternity and to historically contingent factors, like post-Fascist Italy’s “privileging [of] marital paternity even when it was in manifest contradiction to cultural notions of biological truth.” (P. 199.)2 It also demonstrates that “[t]he history of paternity testing is also an antihistory: a history of when law and social norms conceal the identity of the biological father and … prohibit the use of scientific methods to reveal it.” (P. 207.)

Milanich concludes Paternity by showing that this subtle interplay between the biological and the social continues to inform the question of paternity even—or especially—today.  Paternity’s Epilogue tackles the quest for paternity in the age of DNA, and there Milanich argues that “for all their novelty, scientific, commercial, social, and political developments recapitulate rather than revolutionize the history of paternity testing in the twentieth century.” (P. 247.)  “[T]he dramatic advances of the DNA era have not resolved the tensions and ambiguities that modern paternity introduced almost a century ago,” she writes. Rather, “[t]he father is as ambiguous, as deeply contested, … as elusive, as ever.” (P. 247.) Moreover, “the tensions between the social and the biological … have been thrown into even sharper relief by a scientific test that promises to reveal the genetic tie with power and perfection.” (P. 263.)

In the end, Paternity shows that the history of the father has been the history of an “idea” (P. 21) and an “ideology” (P. 21)—an enduring “conceit.” (P. 15.) As noted earlier, quests at their heart are about questions, and “[t]he truly significant question about paternity,” Milanich says, “is not an empirical one—who is the father?—but a normative one—who do we want him to be?” (P. 266.) The normative father could be the person who best represents the state, or patriarchy, or marriage, or whiteness, or nationality. The point is that social and political factors have always shaped the answer to that question, and that the quest for paternity is less about using science to reveal the true father as it is about bending science to satisfy our fantasies about him.

Paternity’s social, legal, and political history of kinship should interest legal scholars invested in the question of how to regulate the family, particularly now that the science of reproduction has allowed new forms of social and biological kinship to proliferate. The book’s deconstruction of the border between social and biological kinship reminds us that biological understandings of the family are often no less fabricated than social ones, and that social kinship can become naturalized over time in ways that supplement or even supplant biological affiliation.  In this sense, Paternity dovetails nicely with Professor Doug Nejaime’s new article The Constitution of Parenthood,3 which not only unearths social kinship in the same Supreme Court precedents that enshrined biology as the foundation of constitutional parenthood, (NeJaime, Pp. 279-305) but also demonstrates that the law over time has naturalized social kinship.  For instance, NeJaime shows that in many states today, the term “natural family” is synonymous with the functional and legal family, regardless of whether it originates in blood. (NeJaime, P. 333.)

In addition, Paternity reminds us that the “distinct ways of defining paternity have no necessary politics. Biological essentialism is not inherently ‘conservative’ . . . Nor is there anything inherently ‘progressive’ about a social constructivist vision of kinship,” Milanich writes (P. 264).  Kinship, she says, “has no preordained politics. Context is everything.” (P. 265.) This last insight struck a particular chord in me, someone who at times reflexively assumes that biological definitions of family are oppressively traditional and functional definitions liberatingly modern. Like all good histories, Milanich’s shows us that the history of the family has never been that simple, much as we might entertain the fiction that it is.

  1. For a discussion of this trope in constitutional sex-equality law, see Courtney Megan Cahill, The New Maternity, 133 Harv. L. Rev. 2221 (2020). Milanich complicates this conventional narrative by showing that science and law did surveille the male body—even more than it did the female body—in the search for parenthood.
  2. Milanich contrasts Italy’s privileging of the marital family over the pursuit for racial “purity” with Nazi Germany’s willingness to throw “open marital paternity to contestation … by state officials” in order to “reveal bioracial truth.” (P. 199.)
  3. Douglas NeJaime, The Constitution of Parenthood, 72 Stan. L. Rev. 261 (2020).
Cite as: Courtney Cahill, Kinship at the Border, JOTWELL (June 8, 2020) (reviewing Nara B. Milanich, Paternity: The Elusive Quest for the Father (2019)), https://family.jotwell.com/kinship-at-the-border/.

Reflections on Family Law

For those of us who spend any appreciable amount of time online—and lately, that is likely many of us—it has been difficult to miss Jia Tolentino’s recently published book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, which has enjoyed some measure of digital fame, appearing even on President Obama’s Instagram “Favorite Books of 2019” post. Despite its renown, it is perhaps not yet a “must read” for family law scholars and teachers, which is the genesis for this Jot: it is a book I liked lots, with a number of less-than-obvious connections to, and implications for, family law.

The book is organized into nine different essays that survey a series of contemporary topics ranging from the Fyre Festival debacle, as symptomatic of the modern economic condition, to the history of the University of Virginia, Tolentino’s alma mater, as it relates to sexual assault on campus. Tolentino is a beautiful writer—her sentences are tightly coiled around key insights and her cleverness never gets in the way of her clarity or coherence. In carrying us outside of the terrain of legal texts, Trick Mirror provides a novel vantage point from which to consider themes that lie at the core of family law. I focus here in particular on how Tolentino mines the ubiquity of performance in our public and private lives—her essays follow its stronghold from marriage, to social media, to the lack of meaningful representation. Questions of performance similarly permeate family law, plaguing its very existence: inquiries into performance have the power to decide what families are and which families matter at the same time that they can expose it all as a sham, revealing the whole system to be “no more than a sustained pattern of conduct.”1

Trick Mirror most legibly concerns family law in its final essay, “I Thee Dread,” which addresses the legal and social implications of marriage as Tolentino explores her own decision not to marry. In fewer than 30 pages, Tolentino summarizes the gamut of family law insights on marriage: the gendered weight of history in claiming who counts as a wife, the invention of numerous traditions (including how white took hold as the color of a bridal dress and how a bride became the metonym for a princess quite literally when Queen Victoria married Prince Albert “in a formal white gown trimmed with orange blossoms” thereby sealing “the symbolic link between ‘bride’ and ‘royalty’”), and the aspirational, albeit reductive, qualities that attend the present-day wedding (which have “intensif[ied] into the idea of a wedding as a ‘sort of Everywoman’s coronation’”). (Pp. 268-69.) While family-law-informed readers will not stumble over Tolentino’s casual invocation of the term “coverture,” they might be intrigued by some of the connections she makes between weddings, reality TV, and class mobility, which meet their flamboyant apex in the show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?. (P. 283.) As Tolentino catalogues, however, love and money are linked at every juncture, even if less ostentatiously—from marriage as a vehicle through which to ascend to the upper-middle class (P. 274), to the cost of the wedding itself, to the price tag attached to mere attendance (“I have spent, at a bare minimum, at least $35,000 on weddings to date”). (P. 282.)

Tolentino also makes a convincing case for how a wedding sets the stage for a lifelong performance, casting women as eternal brides in their own lives. “Expectations of bridal beauty have collided with the wellness industry,” Tolentino argues, to create “a massive dark star of obligation.” (P. 274.) She describes the female condition in a world saturated by Instagram, self-actualization, and barre classes. Performance collides with technology over social media, creating a perfect storm where “[s]elfhood buckles.” (P. 15.) While technology has broadened the ways in which women can, for example, become more beautiful, “[w]e still know surprisingly little about, say, hormonal birth control pills, and why they make so many of the one hundred million women around the world who take them feel awful,” just as we have failed to better “our wages, our childcare system, [or] our political representation.” (Pp. 93-94.) “[T]echnology,” Tolentino submits, “has made us less than oppositional.” (P. 93.)

The advent of technology exposes well-trod foundational fault lines—have we advanced in ways that trap us in old and familiar patterns? Various family law contexts present this paradox, as attempts to secure rights to assisted reproductive technology reveal.2 Contemporary feminism, updated and amplified on the Internet, offers an analogous puzzle: has equality been achieved when “instead of being counseled by mid-century magazines to spend time and money trying to be more radiant for our husbands, we can now counsel one another to do all the same things but for ourselves?” (P. 81.)

Tolentino writes about the inescapability of performance with precision when it comes to the practice of weddings and, in particular, the practice of being a heterosexual woman. She captures the tragicomic plight of the modern millennial who questions the desirability and suitability of entering an institution that involves guests “get[ting] up in the middle of their frisée salads to thrash around to a Bruno Mars cover” (P. 268) at the same time that it is, really, “the only period in a woman’s life where she is universally and unconditionally encouraged to conduct everything on her terms.” (P. 289.) Tolentino is, however, considerably less skeptical in discussing the legalization of same-sex marriage, and celebrates the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, wholly and unproblematically. Confident that “gay marriage brings the institution into its viable future,” Tolentino embraces weddings that invert traditional heteronormative performances, without pausing to wonder whether the institution itself might contain any intractable, disciplining attributes.3

The predicament Tolentino raises over and over again is whether we are even capable of seeing, given how we have been conditioned, nearly imperceptibly, to accept the way things appear to be. Tolentino turns to literature to expose how our eye has been shaped, and in the process, shrouded. Summarizing novel after novel, she shows that the “female condition” presented is “one of whiteness and confinement” and “[t]he heroine’s text tells us that, at best, under a minimum of structural constrictions, women are still mostly pulverized by their own lives.” (P. 128.) The baseline set by literary classics conceals the differences that exist outside those works; a “numbing sense of asymmetry” ensues for those who are excluded. (P. 127.) The solution Tolentino ultimately offers is procedural—she can only uncover the mechanisms through which we have been acclimated to accept inequality writ large.

Gender, race, and class are buried in literature as they are in family law. Family law scholars have then, by necessity, been attentive to the ways these categories affect not only the regulation of families, but the antecedent question of who counts as a family in the first instance, and who can claim regulation by the rules of family law.4 Trick Mirror’s reliance on analysis helps to underscore the importance of questioning texts that we receive as inherited wisdom—be they literary, social, or legal—and in so doing highlights the commonality of the endeavor we are engaged in. And that, I liked lots.

  1. Ariela R. Dubler, Wifely Behavior: A Legal History of Acting Married, 100 Colum. L. Rev. 957, 1009 (2000).
  2. See Michael Boucai, Is Assisted Procreation an LGBT Right?, 2016 Wis. L. Rev. 1065, 1069 (2016) (identifying how “ARTs reinforce some very conventional kinship norms, even as they enable the creation of undeniably ‘modern’ families”).
  3. See Melissa Murray, Marriage as Punishment, 112 Colum. L. Rev. 1, 6 (2012) (“The history of marriage as punishment [] suggests the totality of state regulation of sex and sexuality.”).
  4. See, e.g., Khiara M. Bridges, Family Law, The Oxford Handbook of Law & Humanities 465, 466 (2019) (“the poor frequently do not have the occasion to come into contact with the laws around marriage and divorce that structure the families of those with class privilege” and so “the family law that largely concerns the poor treats the families under its jurisdictions quite differently from the family law that largely concerns those who are not poor”).
Cite as: Albertina Antognini, Reflections on Family Law, JOTWELL (May 11, 2020) (reviewing Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion (2019)), https://family.jotwell.com/reflections-on-family-law/.