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U of U Law School to Hold Symposium on the Changing Family

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The University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law in cooperation with the school’s Gender Studies Program will hold the symposium “New Frontiers in Family Law” about the changing nature of the American family and its effect on family law, on Feb. 28-29.

According to symposium co-organizer and U of U law professor Laura Kessler, the two day event will feature various papers and discussions centered on the many ways in which the American family is moving away from the “traditional nuclear” model to include other models such as “cohabitation, same-sex relationships, extended families, friendships that function as family, and all kinds of intimate relationships.”

Kessler, who organized the symposium with Professor Martha Ertman of the University of Maryland School of Law, said the two day event was formed to  help law professors, students and the general public discuss “loosening of the state’s hold on family relationships” over the past four decades.

“There are major developments in family law right now that have been going on for a few years. What const a family and the rights that come with that definition are really in flux,” she said. “There’s just a lot happening around these questions and what we want to do is explore kinship and intimacy and family relationships that defy the state’s official definition.”

To illustrate her point, Kessler mentioned a number of things that have altered the “traditional nuclear” definition of the American family including globalization, the rise of the reproductive rights movement, the relaxation of divorce law and the 2003 US Supreme Court decision Lawrence vs. Texas, which decriminalized gay sex and paved the way to debates about recognizing same-sex marriage.

In looking outside of traditional marriage at other relationships and other ways of defining the family, Kessler said she hopes the symposium can help answer questions about how “law can support freedom of diversity in intimate life.”

Kessler also said that she hopes the public will enjoy something most law symposia don’t include: a night at the theatre. In keeping with the event’s theme of innovation, Kessler and Ertman decided to add a 90 minute monologue showcase to the academic conference. Modeled upon Eve Ensler’s award-winning play The Vagina Monologues, these fifteen pieces explore a number of different families, from a single mother who had her child through artificial insemination to a lesbian couple trying to get pregnant. Kessler said she hopes the pieces (collectively called Telling Tales on Families) will show attendees how the legal questions discussed in the symposium effect families personally.

One such personal story is Kim and Ruth Hackford-Peer’s “The Most Wanted Boys in the World,” which chronicles how they planned for and conceived their sons, Riley and Casey through artificial insemination.

“Our neighbor across the street is a third year law student at university and he is the one who told us about the call for monologues,” said Ruth. “He thought it would be a good way for us to get our perspective out there. There’ll be a wide group of people attending this conference from the really liberal to the really conservative, and it would show how laws may not be keeping up with reality of our life.”

Ruth said that she and Kim initially wrote two separate monologues and later combined them. Their shared piece details the frustrations of trying to find a willing sperm donor and the frustrations of having a family that is not legally recognized under Utah law.

“Riley was born out of state so Kim was able to adopt him,” Ruth explains at one point in the piece. “He has the protections of two legal parents. But Casey was born in Utah, so we aren’t allowed this co-parent adoption.”

“Straight people divorce all the time and the courts help protect those children,” Kim’s part continues. “But if Ruth and I went through a bitter and ugly separation (it wouldn’t even legally be a divorce), I would have no rights to my baby.”

“The idea is to continue the conversation of what is a family in context outside of academic conversation in a law school,” Kessler explained.

She added that the public is encouraged to attend both parts of the free conference – the academic and the artistic.

“What we’re doing that is innovative and exciting and it’s something of an experiment in doing the theatre program,” she said. “We’re very excited about this, and we want to reach a broad audience.”

New Frontiers in Family Law is supported by the Lee E. Teitelbaum Symposium Fund.

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