The U.S. Supreme Court this week deftly bridged the gap between modern science and old laws in establishing children conceived through in vitro fertilization after their father's death are not eligible for Social Security survivor benefits.
The high court's unanimous ruling took a pragmatic approach to an issue that could too easily be clouded by emotion.
In the ruling, written for the court by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, eligibility for federal benefits depends on whether the offspring are eligible under each state's inheritance law.
In the case before the court -- based in Florida -- the twins born to Karen Capato 18 months after the death of her husband are not recognized by state law as eligible for such benefits.
"The technology that made the twins' conception and birth possible, it is safe to say, was not contemplated by Congress when the relevant provisions of the Social Security Act originated (1939) or were amended to read as they now do (1965)," Ginsburg wrote.
Social Security was intended as a safety net. The benefits were put in place to help families in crisis when a parent dies unexpectedly, leaving the surviving parent with the financial burden of raising the children alone.
Karen Capato knew she would be raising children alone when she made the decision to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization.
Karen and Robert Capato married in 1999, and shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, according to The Washington Post. Because the couple feared his treatments could leave him sterile, Robert stored his healthy sperm. He died in 2002.
After the twin children were born, Karen applied for Social Security survivor benefits.
Ginsburg said the Social Security Administration's decision to look to state inheritance laws is more in tune with the act's design to "benefit primarily those supported by the deceased wage earner in his or her lifetime."
But since state laws differ, it is possible Social Security benefits will be paid out in cases where a child is conceived after the death of one or even both parents. Surrogates are now used to carry to term children conceived through modern fertilization technology.
When people make the decision to be single parents, which they are certainly free to do, they should not be allowed to collect Social Security benefits to ease the financial burden.
Congress needs to address this issue by amending the Social Security Act to establish policy making it clear those conceived after the death of parents are not entitled to taxpayer-subsidized benefits.