Changing the Form of Birth Registration? A Socio-Legal Investigation
Julie McCandlessLecturer in medical and family law at LSE - www.lse.ac.uk/collections/law/staff/julie-mccandless.htm
ESRC Genomics Policy & Research Forum
The University of EdinburghCollege of Humanities and Social ScienceSt John's LandHolyrood RoadEdinburgh EH8 8AQ
Tel: 0131 651 4747
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 and the Welfare Reform Act 2009 have recently instigated a number of changes to the rules pertaining to legal parenthood and birth registration. The former now permits two women to be registered as a child’s legal parents from the moment of birth when certain conditions are met (McCandless and Sheldon, 2010), while the latter introduces a requirement for all births to be jointly registered by two parents unless certain exemptions are satisfied (Probert, 2011). A cursory analysis of the passage of this new legislation reveals a lack of consensus amongst law and policy makers on the purpose and significance of birth registration. Most strikingly, there was disagreement as to what ‘facts’ birth registration should record – whether genetic, legal, social or some combination thereof – as well as the relationship formal birth registration has with the legal rights and responsibilities of parenthood more generally. This lack of consensus can be seen as signalling birth registration as something more complex than a straightforward historico-legal record of genetic fact (Warnock, 1984), mirroring the position in UK law that legal parenthood can be attributed on a number of grounds other than the genetic relationship. Despite the varying grounds on which legal parenthood can be attributed, UK law has remained steadfast in refusing to recognise more than two legal parents on a child’s birth certificate, rendering as normative a very particular family form.
While there exists a rich literature on the question of what does and should make a parent in law, as well as a growing critical commentary on the impact of understandings of parenthood garnered by the recent legislative changes, no study offers a sustained, socio-legal consideration of (legal) parenthood and the two family model in the broader context of birth registration. While some legal studies have started to think about the role and purpose of birth registration (e.g. Bainham 2008), they tend to focus on specific questions – such as whether a birth certificate should record genetic parenthood – rather than locate such questions in the broader historical, social and political context of civil birth registration. Therefore, what I am interested in developing in this project is a critical assessment of the role of birth registration in contemporary UK society and to consider alternatives to the present system, particularly in light of diversifying family forms, modern preoccupations with privacy and identity and the increasing array of other databases which record personal information relevant to the generation of national statistics (especially health and family related statistics). In my seminar session, I would like to present some ideas on how to set-about this research, as I start to design a long-term socio-legal research project on birth registration.