By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - A woman who donated an egg to her lesbian partner can share parental rights to the child, the Florida Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.
The 4-3 ruling directs a lower court to work out joint custody and visitation details, based on the best interests of the child, a 9-year-old girl.
"We conclude that the state would be hard pressed to find a reason why a child would not be better off having two loving parents in her life, regardless of whether those parents are of the same sex, than she would by having only one parent," the majority opinion said.
The dissenting justices said the woman who provided the egg had signed two forms relinquishing any claim to any resulting child, and therefore is not legally her parent. They said the agreement to raise the child together "appears to have been oral" and was never formally executed, so it cannot be enforced.
The two women were in a long-term, committed relationship when they agreed to jointly conceive a child through assisted reproductive technology, court documents said.
The woman who bore the child was infertile. Her partner provided the egg, which was fertilized in vitro, the documents said. They raised the girl together until the relationship soured and the birth mother absconded to Australia with the child, the documents said.
The biological mother tracked her down with a private detective and sued for joint custody.
The trial court in Brevard County ruled that the biological mother had no claim to the child under Florida's assisted reproductive technology statute, which prevents egg and sperm donors from asserting parental rights to children born to another couple.
An appeals court ruled that both women have parental rights and a majority in the Florida Supreme Court agreed.
The justices said that the biological mother did not intend to give away the egg but had provided it as part of an agreement to raise the child jointly, and that she had acted as a parent until her partner split.
They said the birth mother's preference to raise the child alone was "sadly similar to the views of all too many parents who, after separating, prefer to exclude the other parent from the child's life."
Florida does not recognize same-sex marriage or allow homosexuals to adopt. But the justices said the biological mother should have the same constitutionally protected rights as an unmarried biological father who demonstrated a commitment to raising his child by assuming parental responsibilities.
"It is not the biological relationship per se, but rather the assumption of the parental responsibilities which is of constitutional significance," they said.
(Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Grant McCool)