Defining The American Family

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The latest frontier in the ongoing cultural wars being fought over the makeup of the American family involves who has a right to visit a child. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Rita Braver looks at an upcoming Supreme Court case. An archive of The Braver Line is available. Rita Braver's email address is
If ever there were a question in need of the fabled wisdom of Solomon, it's the one that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court this coming week: Who should call the shots on who gets to spend time with a child?

It's known as the grandparents' rights case, and it's being closely watched by families all across the nation. How closely? Well, I put a note out on the Web site of one of the parents' rights groups that have sprung up to counter the powerful grandparents' lobby, and the emails came pouring in.

I heard from parents who said that their own parents dragged the grandkids to bars or dirty movies, or fed them too many sweets or bought them inappropriate gifts, or just tried to boss the whole family around. They all argue that as long as parents are not abusive, they should have the right to decide who sees their children.

Then I went to a grandparents' support group, where folks talked about how their own children, or their sons- and daughters-in-law kept them apart from the kids. Sometimes it was just a power struggle within a family. Years of battling over one thing or another ended up in a battle over seeing the grandkids.

Sometimes a grandparent had spoken up about a parent's use of alcohol or drugs, and ended up banished. Maybe there was a divorce or a death, and the parent with custody just didn't want to have anything to do with the parents of the former spouse. The grandparents argue that having a relationship with them is in the children's best interest.

The notion of grandparents' rights is relatively new. For most of this country's history, no one ever considered a lawsuit over the issue. In most families, whether grandparents were adored or barely tolerated, they were a fact of life, and you saw them more or less often, depending on where they lived and how well they got along with your folks.

But there has been a great change in the American family. In 1972, according to a recent study, 73 percent of children lived with their original parents. By 1998, only about 52 percent of them did. Families are messier. Lawsuits are more prevalent. And the powerful senior citizens' lobby has convinced every state in the nation to pass some form of law, allowing grandparents to sue for visitation rights.

The case before the U.S. Supreme Court goes even further than grandparents' rights. The law at issue comes from Washington state, which allows any third party - blood relative or not - who can show a significant relationship with a child to seek court-ordered isitation. That means stepparents or even long-time live-in boyfriends or girlfriends, including those in gay partnerships, all may claim a bond.

And if the Supreme Court rules broadly, the very definition of what constitutes an American family could be changed forever.

All Supreme Court cases are Gordian knots, but this one is especially tangled. After all, it's about when it's appropriate for the government to intervene in our personal lives of of those of our children and grandchildren.

There's not really a liberal or conservative position, so politics really doesn't enter in here. Eight of the justices are parents, six are also grandparents, but there's no telling what impact that will have. So all we can really do is stand by and hope that the justices really can help come to terms with what may be a new definition of what constitutes an American family in the 21st century.