Having a child is the most natural thing in the world. In an ideal scenario, it’s a situation born of love, commitment and the desire to procreate. But what if the usual trappings of that romantic impulse to give life aren’t available to you?
To put it into context, The UK Adoption and Children Act 2002 gave same-sex couples the right to jointly adopt children, and in the same year the English Court of Appeal judged that a same-sex couple could be seen to be “living together as husband and wife”.
The Civil Partnership Act was passed in 2004 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act 1990 was revised in2008. The new HFE Act gives lesbian couples who conceive using licensed donor sperm increased legal recognition in law, replacing the 1990 wording of “father” with “supportive parenting”. Under the new act, if a woman is in a civil partnership at the time of the treatment, then “the other party to the civil partnership is to be treated as a parent of the child”. If a woman is not in a civil partnership at the time she obtains donor sperm but has a partner who gives consent to the treatment, the non-birth mother is automatically treated as a parent of the child.
So while there is clarity in some areas, for lesbian parents who conceive using natural methods, the law makes it very much more complicated. The donor is legally considered the child’s father and if he is named on the birth certificate, has parental responsibility. If he is not named he is still legally considered the father and can apply to court for that aforementioned parental control.
Gay men wanting to father children can opt for the surrogacy route (see next issue for a more in-depth article). In this case the surrogate’s own eggs are used or those of an egg donor can be fertilised. Surrogacy is legal in the UK but it’s still illegal to advertise and make money from it (bar expenses). There is the added complication that the surrogate is able to change her mind at any time making it a stressful and potentially heartbreaking experience for the male donor.
Many gay men opt to donate sperm to a single woman or lesbian couple and then play an active role in the child raising. If a man donates to an anonymous recipient through a fertility clinic there are no legal or financial obligations to the child but it will be able to trace its biological father when it is 18.
If a man donates privately, this option is at the discretion of all parties. Dr Petra Nordqvist is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Manchester Morgan Centre for the Study of Relationships and Personal Life in the Department of Sociology. She interviewed 25 lesbian couples with experiences of when it is 18. clinical and/or self-arranged donor conception in England and Wales, at various stages of the conception process (from thinking about it to being pregnant). She found what she calls “an irresolvable tension” between the couples’ conception practices using donor sperm, and their romantic desire to be a nuclear family.
Says Dr Nordqvist, “Clinical conception is difficult in itself to negotiate, but non-clinical conception is far worse. Couples who cannot negotiate access to clinics – for example, because they cannot afford it – have to resolve a whole range of issues in order to get access to donor sperm, not least legal ones. “Such couples have to, for example, consider where to find a donor, who they want as a donor, if they want an involved father, how to do it, if they can trust him, and also if he is sexually healthy. These experiences are actually quite common but far from how most people imagine conception to be like.” How couples resolve these issues is complex.
Of Dr Nordqvist’s sample, 23 were actively trying or had already conceived. Twelve went to clinics and 11 were doing self-arranged conception. “What’s important,” says Dr Nordqvist, “is that the boundaries were fluid. Some started the non-clinic route and then a few years down the line they swapped. The law change made a difference so they became more willing to go to a clinic, for example.” She adds, “Often this was because the hurdles proved incommensurable. For example, they could no longer afford the clinic treatment and this had so far been unsuccessful, or relations with donors would break down – for example because he had a new partner or wanted to be more involved with the child than was previously agreed.”
Melissa Smith (not part of the study) is from London, 41, and in a long-term lesbian relationship. She had her children, Raphael (6) at the age of 34 and Gabriel (3) at 37.
“I have always known that I wanted children,” she told Fertility Road. “When I first met my partner, Rani, 12 years ago, I was already feeling ready to start a family, but she persuaded me to wait a while so that we could enjoy some freedom first. I began seriously trying to get pregnant at 31.” There was no possibility of Rani being the birth mother as she had already passed through menopause so the choice of birth mother was an easy one. Says Melissa, “We first of all began to try to conceive with Rani’s brother’s sperm, but this involved expensive trips to Malaysia and was very complex and fraught, so in the end we decided to use an anonymous donor (at that time this was possible in the UK).” Says Melissa, “Neither of us wanted to risk a sperm donor who could have any claim whatsoever on the child, so we were quite happy with this option, although it was not our preferred one.”
“Often couples want a donor who looks similar to them. Research revealed how important looks and resemblance are in family ‘connectivity.”
One of the overriding findings of Dr Nordqvist’s research was that the couples wanted donors not dads. She says, “A very important driving force for the couples through the whole process was their desire to have a child together and to be parents of that child. This meant that most couples saw the donor as a donor and not as a dad.”
A lot of the women Dr Nordqvist spoke to initially went to friends first: “They said, ‘what men do we have around us?’. Even if they didn’t talk to them about it at first they thought about them for some time.”
Forty-year-old Heather and her partner Jane (not part of the study) decided they wanted a strong family resemblance so they asked Jane’s brother if he would be a donor. He agreed and they made arrangements. Eventually, he met a new partner who decided she was unhappy with the idea and it was back to the drawing board. Eventually Jane and Heather gave up on the idea as they didn’t want to go down the clinical route. “It just got too traumatic,” says Jane, “and we couldn’t see how we could do it properly.”
For some of them it did work – either finding someone who wanted to be a dad or wanted to donate but not have any involvement. Some would even get to the point where they had spoken to solicitors in order to tease out how the relationship would work. When it broke down, it broke down in different ways. Says Dr Nordqvist, “Cases were different. Sometimes the donor had a new sexual partner who wasn’t keen. In another case the donor moved away and they all became uncomfortable with meeting up every month. When you have to do it every month the practicalities can get difficult.”
In another case, a couple had used a friend who wasn’t going to be the dad. But he then changed his mind and decided he did want legal responsibility.
Usually, says Dr Nordqvist, the couples wanted someone with a family already, where possible. “If the donor was going to be the dad this was less important,” adding, “then it became about how trustworthy he was. A sort of ‘If he’s already got kids then he’s doing it for different reasons…’ reasoning.”
Dr Nordqvist found that her couples chose a donor really quite carefully and that they considered the donor’s physical appearance to be of great importance. She says, “Often the couples want a donor who looks similar to them. My research threw some interesting light on how important looks and resemblance are in family ‘connectivity.’”
Melissa adds, “The clinic was quite firm that we should use a sperm donor who was as close to Rani in profile as possible. We had no objection to that, and in fact Rani was even keen for the donor to be Hindu and not Muslim. Again, at that time there was no great shortage of Indian sperm donors, though now it is quite a different story.”
Melissa and Rani tried with one donor with the help of IVF and she conceived but miscarried at four months. They then chose a different donor and she conceived straight away with no fertility drugs whatsoever, just IUI (intrauterine insemination).
Melissa and Rani know very little about their children’s ‘donor daddy’ (as they call him) – just his height, hair colour, eye colour, ethnic origin and religion, as well as a tiny thumbnail sketch about his interests and skills. But, she adds, “We know he was an engineering student and my eldest son is already showing promise in that field. So the father’s personality legacy lives on.”
Other donor issues studied by Dr Nordqvist include the nuts and bolts of the insemination: “How does she gain access to donor sperm over time (since she may not conceive on the first attempt)? How does she find a place to do the insemination? How does she feel about preparing the semen sample, the bodily fluid of a probable stranger?
“How do they feel?” Says Dr Nordqvist, “The way in which they receive a donation has a lot to say about how they perceive their intimacy,” adding, “What I found fascinating was how they constructed being a couple as they conceived. It wasn’t just anyone who could inseminate the birth mother but always the non-birth mother (if they were doing it themselves). And they would go together to the clinic if it was IVF.”
Eleven of the women Dr Nordqvist spoke to self-arrange their conception. She reports, “There was one case where the donor agreed he would be very much on the side and as they got more into it, it transpired that he wanted it to be a bit cosier than they did…”
Additionally, she says, “The couples told me that there was a great distinction between having sex and doing the insemination. This was very important to them and they had differing views from some of the potential donors.”
Every stage of the process was managed by the couples. “From the way the donor moved in the house to how he would donate the sperm. Some of the couples made sure the donor was in the toilet not in the bedroom, for example, or that he was upstairs while they were downstairs. One couple even went out so one of the donors could have more privacy.”
Many of the couples Dr Nordqvist spoke to had planned to alternate birth mothers, though, she says, “Some had no desire to be pregnant at all.”
Says Dr Nordqvist, “Lesbian conception practices go against conventional understandings of reproduction so lesbian couples who want to become parents together find themselves in a position where their route to conception is uncertain. It is unclear whether they can pursue donor conception as a couple, what conception methods are available to them, how they can access donor sperm, and if and how their parenthood and family will be recognised.”
Smith agrees, “Rani wondered if she would feel bonded to the child if she was not biologically related to it. Time has proven that to be utterly irrelevant to her. She could not be more bonded if they were stuck together with superglue!”
The idea of family was very important to all of Dr Nordqvist’s respondents. She says, “Those ‘family’ links were made in different ways. Many felt it was important to resemble each other and therefore chose a donor who looked like them, others made sure they were civilly partnered or had the same last name.”
Melissa and Rani stored sperm from the same donor to use for a second pregnancy. Says Melissa, “We were allowed to use this sperm after the law change, as donor sperm was exempt if siblings had already been born from anonymous sperm.” Again, Melissa conceived immediately, and Gabriel was born on their fifth anniversary. Melissa now offers advice on fertility, pregnancy, parenting and legal support for gay and lesbian couples and parents, through her consultancy Making Families.
The lesbian fertility landscape is still a tricky one to navigate but, says Melissa, it’s changing. “We didn’t encounter hostility from the fertility clinics, but at that point they were all still approaching lesbians as if they were infertile, which was of course not the case.”
“Clinics are more aware of the issues that may be different for lesbians and there are even some clinics who deliberately court lesbian clientele”
She adds, “I feel that they encouraged lesbians to take heavy courses of fertility drugs very early in their treatment, without giving their bodies a chance to try without for a while. This has changed a little now, though I still feel they are a bit pushy with the interventions. Most clinics are more aware of the issues that may be different for lesbians and there are even some clinics who deliberately court lesbian clientele, probably as they have realised that there are profits, as well as babies, to be made from the lesbian fertility market.”
For qualified information and advice on same-sex parenting why not head to www.prideangel.com Founded by scientists Erika and Karen, Pride Angel is an independent connection service, committed to helping single, lesbian, gay and infertile couples become parents through donor conception and co-parenting.