We are often approached for advice from two-mum families who feel ready to start seriously considering conceiving a child. As a lesbian couple there are more options that you might think and in this guide I’m going to talk about the various avenues available to you and important considerations for each. Some families choose to go down the route of adoption instead, but as that was never a consideration for us for numerous reasons I don’t know as much about it so I won’t be talking about it in this guide. I expect that much of my advice will also be applicable to single-mums-by-choice – you’ll just need to skip the part about deciding who will gestate the sprog!
I’m sure that it goes without saying but I’m not a doctor or any type of medical professional – just a mum who has been through the TTC process and researched all of her options.
This is Part One of a two-part guide and in this post we’ll be looking at the legalities surrounding the various options, considerations around whose egg to use and who will carry the baby, and sourcing donor sperm. If you already have that bit covered, you might like to skip to Part Two, where we’re looking at the different reproductive techniques that you might consider using instead.
The legalities of making a baby as a two-mum family are an important consideration and it’s definitely worth starting here when planning how you will expand your family. If you are married to your partner or have had a civil union, both of you will automatically be considered the baby’s legal parents and both of your names are eligible to go on the birth certificate. If you and your partner are not married and nor have you had a civil union, the baby’s non-gestational mother (the one who did not carry and birth the baby) will not automatically be considered the second parent. Furthermore, if you source donor sperm informally without going through a clinic, the sperm donor will be considered the legal father. This can present challenges for all parties further down the line, for example: the sperm donor could decide to exercise parental rights or challenge for custody; conversely, the non-gestational mother would have no automatic rights to parental responsibility or access to the child in the event of a separation from the child’s legal mother or the legal mother’s death. If you are considering using donor sperm sourced through an informal arrangement, you may like to marry or organise a civil union first. Otherwise, you may choose to pursue fertility treatment through a clinic, who will be able to organise the paperwork to ensure that both of the mothers’ rights are legally protected.
WHOSE EGGS WILL YOU USE AND WHO WILL CARRY THE BABY?
The first thing you need to do is decide who will carry the baby. In some couples I expect that the answer will be obvious or, at any rate, can be clarified with a brief conversation. For other people this decision will take time and soul-searching. It’s an important choice and it’s ok if you need to sit with it for a while before the answer becomes apparent, to discuss it at length or even to involve a fertility counsellor. For the purpose of this guide I have assumed that both mothers/female parents are able to provide eggs or gestate the baby but if your circumstances are different you could skip to the next section to read about sourcing donor sperm.
To help you to come to a decision, you might like to ask yourselves the following:
Does it matter to me whether the baby is genetically ‘mine’?
This question relates to whose egg is used during the conception process.
Some two-mum couples choose to do a form of IVF whereby the egg from one mother is, once it is fertilised and develops into an embryo, transferred into the other mother – so that one experiences the genetic link to the child and the other mother experiences the ‘traditional’ beginnings to motherhood of pregnancy and childbirth. This is called reciprocal IVF. Of all of the ways to start a family this is the most expensive, but for some women it is the best choice.
Do I feel a particular need to experience pregnancy and childbirth first-hand?
Do we hope to have subsequent children in the future and if so, do we intend for the mother who carried the pregnancy this time to gestate future pregnancies also? How will we feel if we have healthy embryos ‘left over’ that we do not plan to use?
This was an easy decision for us. Kirsty has a hereditary health condition that our strongest preference was to protect our children from inheriting, and she has a horror of pregnancy. Right at the start we knew that our children would be conceived using my eggs and I would gestate the pregnancy. We agreed at this point that as I had cornered ‘nature’, she would have the majority of the ‘nurture’ aspect in our children’s lives by being the stay-at-home parent in their formative years.
SOURCING DONOR SPERM
Once you have decided whose egg you will use and who will gestate the baby, it is time to devote some thought to the balancing half of your child’s genetics and where you will source the sperm to create your baby. Some women are able to source donor sperm within their circle of family and friends and to form an informal arrangement about what raising that child will be like and how the donor of the sperm and the donor-conceived child will ideally relate to each other. Other women choose to peruse websites that link would-be parents with donors of genetic material and to have the same conversations about the role that the donor will play in your child’s life. If you pursue this route, it is wise to devise an informal agreement that you and the donor can refer back to at a later date if necessary. It’s not a legally-binding document but it can provide a framework for outlining expectations about the relationship and responsibilities that you will both have toward your child going forward. It would be wise to look into your donor’s sexual history – do they have regular tests for sexuality transmitted diseases and can they prove that they are likely uninfectious?
A third option is to use donor sperm from a clinic – your fertility clinic may have their own sperm bank or you might choose to import donor sperm to the clinic from another sperm bank. If you are pursuing fertility treatment via a clinic, they will almost certainly be able to advise you on this.
Donor sperm in the UK, except through informal arrangements as mentioned above, is regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (the HFEA). The HFEA only permit clinics to use sperm donors who have provided consent for contact when the donor-conceived children turn eighteen, which is considered to be in the best interest of the donor-conceived children. This does mean that some of the donors advertised internationally are not available to UK-based recipients, but there is still plenty of choice.
If you decide to source your donor sperm from a sperm bank, you should expect to gain access to an online catalogue from which to select your donor. You will likely be able to see photographs of the donors as babies, summaries of their personalities and interests, medical details for themselves and those of their immediate families (or as much information as they know), and you may be able to hear a clip of their voice. The donors write a letter to the recipients of their genetic material and the intended children, so that you have something tangible to provide to a child questioning his or her background. As mentioned previously, when your child turns eighteen they will be able to apply to the sperm bank to request the donor’s name, passport number and last known address; they may then if they choose use this information to find the donor. Although the donors have indicated willingness to be approached by their adult donor-conceived children it is wise to bear in mind that there is no guarantee that they will still feel similarly at that point in time, that their families will be aware of their past as a sperm donor or indeed that they will still be alive.
There is a perception that choosing a sperm donor is a bit of a tick box activity – you select the one that you think suits your family the best, and then if all goes well you don’t have to think about it again, or at least until your child turns eighteen and is able to request information about his or her genetic father. However, a growing movement of donor-conceived adult children express a sense of loss having not known their genetic father; feedback from donor-conceived adults suggests that conversations around a child’s origins should be life-long, with information freely provided and sought out where possible. With genetic testing easily available these days, it’s not unlikely that a donor-conceived child will discover much more about their genetic origins than their parents signed up for, including contact with not only their genetic half-siblings via their sperm donor’s ‘donations’ but also access to the donor and his family themselves. Some parents consider that it is best to provide as much information to their children as they are able to source themselves, and widen their child’s access to their genetic origins early on by seeking out other families who have also used their child’s donor, so that the children can benefit from the link to that side of their genetics.
On the subject of genetic half-siblings, the HFEA allow each donor to produce only ten families within the UK, but of course there may well be more families created by your donor on an international level.
In an ideal world, cost wouldn’t be a determining factor when deciding how to obtain the other half of your future child’s genetic material. However, we don’t live in an ideal world. It likely goes without saying that the most inexpensive way to obtain donor sperm is to source it from family, a friend or an altruistic stranger – although it is normal to pay expenses. The most expensive way to obtain donor sperm is to buy it from a sperm bank, although this is also probably the most legally reliable and you have an assurance that the semen in question is clear from STDs. Costs vary dependent on which clinic you use and what grade of donor semen you purchase, but you can expect to have to pay for the following:
- Donor sperm (cost per vial)
- Courier fee
- HFEA ‘Family Fee’
That seems like plenty to digest, so let’s take a break there. When you’re ready, it’s time to move on to Part Two, Fertility Choices as a Lesbian Couple.