The mother of all dilemmas

Many lesbians want children and are opting for sperm donation. Is it wrong? Is it right? And what effect does it have on their offspring?
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The Independent Online
An American academic named Charlotte Patterson announces that there is a worldwide lesbian baby boom, although her claim is based only on studies in Britain, the United States and the Netherlands. In fact, there are no precise figures in Britain, but evidence for a boom is slim. There is a London lesbian parenting group with 160 members, and the total is probably in the hundreds rather than thousands. But anecdotal evidence suggests an increase each year, and lesbian parenting has already become common enough in Britain to attract the indignation of the Sun.

Ann Blackburn, aged 38, co-ordinator of the London group, emphasises a shift in the manner, rather than the number of conceptions. "Fifteen years ago, children of lesbians would mostly be from previous heterosexual relationships. Now the majority are born through known donor insemination or artificial insemination while the mothers are within a lesbian relationship."

Since only a few fertility clinics extend their services to lesbians, informal self- insemination networks thrive and this is the trend that incurred tabloid wrath ("Lesbians Pay pounds 5 For a Baby/Fury at DIY Pregnancy"). But the nesting impulse affects all women to varying degrees.

Gill, a 38-year-old solicitor, who looks after her son, Rhys, with her lesbian partner Sian, asserts that the her desire for a child was "the same as any other woman's". The commitment is probably greater: "Because it takes so much organisation and thought, the child is very much wanted. Obviously, there's no such thing as an unplanned lesbian pregnancy."

The process of self-insemination is relatively straightforward, though the stork arrives in a variety of guises. I have a friend called Claire for whom it arrived in a Marmite jar kept warm in the armpit of her sperm donor on the bus ride to her flat.

A woman choosing to do-it-herself must first ascertain the most fertile point in her menstrual cycle. The donor ejaculates into a jar, which is kept airtight at room temperature. The semen is then placed in the vagina as close to the cervix as possible, using a syringe, a spoon or even a turkey baster. Nature, as they say, then takes its course. In terms of social tradition and religious instinct, on the other hand, lesbian parenting is not natural at all, and the problems, for parents and child, have less to do with conception and birth than with legal inequality and popular perception.

Gill and Sian alternately peel potatoes and fold vests, negotiating around their son and each other with practical precision. The ethics of their co-parenting relationship, which they share with Rhys's natural father, come second to the search for small socks and their ability to raise a happy child.

Rhys's father is a gay man in his early thirties, whom Gill met through a friend of a friend. "I wanted someone approachable, who was committed to being a known father, HIV negative, of course, and with a Celtic background because I'm Welsh." Although some women prefer to have an anonymous donor, she was keen for her child to have an identifiable father, and Rhys spends about a third of his time with him.

"It's not a case of us taking him to the ballet, and his father taking him fishing," explains Sian. "He loves to get involved. He put up shelves with Gill the other week and he's been doing a lot of gardening with me." As far as Rhys is concerned, his significant adults make up an attentive triumvirate of Mummy, Daddy and a Sian. Does he like the arrangement? "Of course," he says wearily. Sian considers Rhys her own child. "My role is valued by him, and because I'm not the birth mother gives me no problem with loving him. But we don't come to it as Rhys having two mummies.

"All he is aware of is the three of us, and how we treat him," says Sian. Rhys has already been exposed to a variety of family arrangements and his best friend at nursery school is being brought by her grandparents. He has yet to question his own family set-up, although Sian and Gill expect that it will happen soon, particularly when he starts school next January.

HAD PATERNITY been less important to Gill, she could have sought the assistance of an established clinic, where careful screening of sperm and expert medical knowledge attracts many lesbian mothers. The Bridge Fertility Centre in London estimates that around nine per cent of its clients are lesbians, noting that this figure may be influenced by the clinic's reputation as one of the few to extend its services to same-sex couples.

Every fertility clinic is free to dictate its own policy, and is legally bound to take account of "the potential child's need for a father" along with other social and economic factors. John Ockendon, spokesman for the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority, argues that discrimination is avoided now following legislation in 1990 which stated that no individual group of women may be excluded from assisted reproduction.

Nevertheless, when the Independent on Sunday called 15 clinics across the country, not one offered treatment to lesbians, and many cited ethical reasons for failing to do so. Tim Hedgely of Issue, the country's largest advice service for infertile couples, explains. "We do have a problem with lesbians using fertility treatment who are not infertile. It's like asking for chemotherapy just to get your hair cut."

Following conception, the quagmire deepens, as co-parents discover that legislation affecting the family was not drafted with them in mind, especially in the case of DIY pregnancies. Private donor arrangements are not recognised in law, and a non-biological co-parent has no legal rights. Although Stonewall, the gay and lesbian lobbying organisation, refers to recent cases in which the courts have made joint residence orders over children of lesbian parents, the process is expensive, and still does not fully recognise parental rights.

Ann Blackburn, of the London Lesbian Parenting Group, believes that many concerns stem from a presumption that the children of lesbian parents may be susceptible to sexual abuse: "The system says `if they are sexually perverse, as we perceive them to be, then they will be sexual with every human being.' The system forgets that we are parents first and foremost."

While hysteria surrounding potential paedophilia may be misplaced, the child's development raises other issues. Dr Sidney Crown, consultant psychotherapist at the Royal London Hospital, notes: "When his peers are talking about `mummy' and `daddy', a child of lesbian parents may have difficulty in distinguishing between the roles of those two parents. A male child has no opportunity to develop a picture of a father, which may make it more difficult to establish male identification."

But not impossible. Professor Susan Golombok, director of the Family and Child Psychology Research Centre at City University, who has researched the children's reactions, says: "The assumption that lesbian mothers will have lesbian daughters and gay sons was not supported by our findings, although having a lesbian mother did appear to widen an adolescent's view of what constituted acceptable sexual behaviour."

However, others believe Professor Golombok's work is not to be taken at face value. Dr Clifford Davies, lecturer in psychology at the University of Manchester, says: "I do worry about stigma. Since children can be bullied about something as slight as the colour of their hair, it's hard to avoid bullying about lesbian parents. I would also raise a concern about the assymetry of parental investment, when there is biological input from one parent only." Val Stalnes, a primary school teacher from Kent, has taught only one pupil from a lesbian family. "It came to my attention when there was a bit of teasing. I remember him getting embarrassed when questioned about his home life." Another teacher recalls a boy who drew a graphic picture of his "father" coming to a bloody end in a variety of heroic situations in an attempt, conscious or otherwise, to disguise his lesbian parentage. She notes that most children exhibit a strong desire to conform and, while research remains inconclusive, such experiences does raise the question: is it selfish to expose a child to potential distress? Gill bristles at this suggestion. "We're not naive about it, and we recognise that there will be times when Rhys will be challenged, and will have to decide how `out' he wants to be. Of course, you are going to encounter extreme prejudice. There's nothing you can do to change that. But we are confident in our family set-up, and he has a good sense of self, I just don't understand why a particular group like ours should be considered poor parents."

Rhys senses his mother's agitation. "Who shouldn't be parents? You ask a lot of questions." He looks at me pointedly. "When I finish my dinner, me and Mummy and Sian will go out. You won't be coming too."

There are a great many three-year-olds in the country. Some were not planned, some are not cared for, some not even loved. Rhys is wrapped in love, and only he can eventually judge whether that has been enough.

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