When a man is not an option, sisters are doing it for themselves
Kara DeLeonardis and Sarah Page live in Burlington's South End with their daughters Zaley, 3, and Adelaide, 7 months. Sarah gave birth to Zaley, and Kara carried Adelaide. They both used the same anonymous donor's sperm, which they bought in a double batch and had stored at Fletcher Allen. The arrangement makes the girls genetic half-sisters -- though Kara rejects such language. "I don't want them to think they're anything other than full siblings," she says. "I think there's too much emphasis on biology."
"Cheryl" is a 41-year-old Burlington woman who has always wanted a child, and always assumed she'd have one as part of a relationship with a guy. But when her biological clock began winding down and it became clear that her boyfriend didn't want to father her baby, Cheryl decided to go it alone. "I cannot rely on a man," she says, "I cannot rely on anyone but myself. If it's my true heart's desire, I need to do this by myself." After browsing sperm catalogues, she chose a donor who seemed similar to her: blue eyes, blond hair, good grades, an easy wit and a love of sea otters. Plus, he had a cute baby picture. Finding Mr. Right was easy. "Just punch in what you want and they give you those attributes," Cheryl says. After two inseminations, she's waiting for positive results.
The pull of procreation is about as basic as human nature gets. But the urge to reproduce isn't necessarily tied to the desire, or the ability, to get pregnant the usual way. Donor insemination introduces semen into the uterus with something other than a penis. It's also called AI. The "A" stands for either "artificial" or, among the politically correct, "alternative." The technique was originally developed for farm animals, and was first used to help human couples in the late 19th century. By 1955, 50,000 married women had achieved in physician-assisted pregnancies. In 1986-87, the most recent year such statistics were assembled, an estimated 172,000 Americans underwent medically supervised AI, and 65,000 of them gave birth -- nearly half using semen from someone other than their husbands.
What the numbers don't show is how many used a donor's sperm because they didn't have -- or want -- a husband. With support from the women's movement, lesbians pioneered the process of do-it-yourself impregnation. Along with some unmarried heterosexual women who wanted to bypass doctors, they took matters into their own... turkey basters. As the medical establishment -- and society -- have become more accepting of nontraditional families, females without males have come to represent a fertile market within the baby-making industry. But it still isn't child's play.
Three decades ago, lesbian AI was political as well as personal. It was a way to stick it to the patriarchal medical establishment, suggests sociologist Amy Agigian (see side-bar). But for many it was also the only choice. Physicians controlled who could get pregnant through AI, and if you were openly homosexual, you were out of luck. The situation hadn't improved much by 1988; that year, a government survey found doctors more likely to deny insemination to a woman because she was a lesbian than if she had medical risks from pregnancy, a sexually transmitted disease or a criminal record.
Lesbians looking for physicians to help them get pregnant generally kept their sexual preferences to themselves. Joan Knight wasn't one of them. Now 65 and living in Burlington, Joan broke new ground when she decided to have her baby here in 1976. She called a New York City sperm bank, identified herself as a lesbian, and asked if she could use the center's services. The man on the phone said he'd never been asked that before. After checking with his lawyer, he agreed to help. But he couldn't release sperm to an individual -- Knight had to find a physician. Easier said than done. The first four or five Vermont doctors she asked refused. "I felt like I was bumping into prejudice," she says.
When she tried Burlington's Women's Health Center, the feminist collective "called a meeting." Knight and her partner participated in the discussion. "A couple of people didn't think this was the right thing to do to a child," Knight recalls. "A third person said, 'This isn't the order of the universe. Nature works another way.'" After much debate, the group gave Knight the go-ahead.
The next task was selecting a donor. The sperm bank invited customers to specify characteristics such as race and IQ. But Joan opted not to opt. "I wanted to take my chances," she explains. If she was nonchalant about the semen, though, she was anything but when it came to the insemination. "I became quite an expert at predicting my ovulation," she says. That meant charting her temperature for eight months, and using a mirror to study changes on her cervix.
Knight once again broke new ground when she delivered her daughter at the Burlington hospital then known as the Mary Fletcher. In those days, hospital policy stipulated that only the patient's husband could be present at the birth. A supportive physician convinced the administration to set a new precedent by admitting Knight's female partner. Another doctor, Knight says, ensured that only nurses who were not "prejudiced against lesbianism" be assigned to her care.
Although plenty of physicians still refuse to help lesbians inseminate, this sort of gate-keeping isn't nearly as common as it once was. One reason is economic, Agigian suggests. Advances such as in vitro fertilization now make it possible for more heterosexual couples to conceive using the man's own genetic material. That has made the donor-sperm route a lot less attractive, so businesses that rely on the sale of semen not only accept, but target lesbians and single straight women in order to meet the bottom line. Even facilities known for being unfriendly to lesbians now officially state that they don't discriminate based on sexual orientation.
The cultural change is evident in Burlington. Twenty-eight years after Joan Knight convinced hospital officials to allow her partner into her labor room, Kara DeLeonardis spent most of her labor with her female partner in the tub at Fletcher Allen's birthing center.
Judith Gerber, PhD, who counsels prospective AI clients at Fletcher Allen, says she has seen an increase in the number of lesbians coming to the hospital to get pregnant. "Lesbian couples are moving to Vermont to start families because we are perceived as a gay-friendly state, particularly by couples living less than open lives in Bible Belt states," she writes in an email. "It is gratifying, from my perspective as a provider," she adds, "to be part of an institution which also offers gay-friendly medical and psychological care to these pioneering women."
As the medical profession has recognized the needs of women making babies without men, women have come to recognize the value of medical professionals. A major motivator is AIDS. In the early days, lesbians often chose gay sperm donors. Today, even women who don't go through sperm banks insist on having their donors tested. Commercial sperm is frozen and stored, and donors are tested twice for HIV -- once when the specimen is taken, and then again six months later before the specimen is released.
Commercial ovulation-predictor kits have replaced the old basal thermometers and charts. And women who have trouble getting pregnant at home may seek the more reliable intrauterine insemination -- a procedure requiring a physician.
When AI was in its infancy, the sperm source was always secret. And in most cases, it still is. The policy protects providers from potential paternity suits, and recipients from possible custody battles. And when the client is married to a man, concealing the donor's identity preserves the illusion of dad as progenitor. After all, when fertility is equated with manhood, no guy wants to admit that he's been shooting blanks.
If there's no father in the picture, the male's ego isn't an issue. But the child's may be. Nowadays, many consider information about their biological origins to be a human right, whether the issue is adoption or AI. The "known donor" approach began in the 1980s at lesbian-centered sperm banks. Today, it's not uncommon for mainstream companies to offer offspring the option of contacting their donor dads when they reach 18.
Providing this option didn't matter to Kara DeLeonardis and her partner. "We decided it wasn't important for us," says Kara. "It's really different from adoption, where there are birth parents. We felt like we're the two parents." Selecting specific characteristics was also not a priority, she adds. "We weren't too choosy as long as the person seemed pretty healthy."
Although Fletcher Allen once relied on local donors -- mostly med students -- the system proved impractical and was dropped, says Julia Johnson, who directs the hospital's fertility center. Today FAHC gets its sperm from a bank in Boston. The hospital bulk-buys semen from six donors at time, selecting the specimens based on the characteristics local clients most often request. To date, all have been Caucasian. After 10 women have selected the same donor, his semen is retired to protect the gene pool.
The company Fletcher Allen uses doesn't offer "known donors," but women who want that choice, or who want to choose from a broader range of donors, can shop elsewhere, and the hospital will store and handle the specimen. That's the route Cheryl took. She browsed through several of the many donor catalogues that can easily be found online. The tall, blond appeal of an all-Scandinavian sperm bank seemed tempting, but the company didn't provide a way for offspring to trace their roots, so she went with a Cali-fornia outfit that did. "I can't do that to a child," Cheryl says.
Some AI mothers want more for their child than just information about the donor -- they want the donor to play an ongoing role in the child's life. And that's not something you can get through a sperm bank. Early in her donor search, Andrea Kelly turned to the Seven Days personals. Her ad for an "open-minded, attractive, intelligent, trustworthy [man] interested in helping to start a life without custodial or financial obligations" netted 18 responses. But none was willing to be known.
"I didn't feel comfortable making such a fundamental decision for my child that limited something in their life," Andrea says. "People have a yearning towards their origins that's natural and healthy, and that's positive." In the end, Andrea and her partner Laura Ramirez chose a mutual friend who came to their Burlington home and left his donation in a baby food jar.
Laura performed the insemination. And now she's hoping to have a baby of her own. After trying for years to get pregnant through AI, she's working with a surrogate mother. Exactly how those babies will relate to their donors is yet to be determined.
"Having a known donor is a huge leap of faith," cautions "Renee." Her open donor arrangement has been working well for 18 years. Now a resident of Burlington's Hill Section, Renee was living in San Francisco and looking to get pregnant when a close friend with a 2-year-old daughter offered her husband's sperm. Renee's son calls the donor by his first name, and has always known him as the man who gave his mother the sperm from which he was made. Now a high school senior, he remains extremely close with the donor's entire family, whom he still sees at least once a year. "It's been very, very easy," Renee says.
Not everyone can count on it being so trouble free. To guard against unwanted complications, women entering into open donor arrangements are likely to formalize their agreements with a legal contract. But the power of those papers remains unproven in Vermont, cautions Deborah Lashman, a Burlington attorney specializing in family law. Donor insemination is completely unregulated in this state. A pre-conception contract here would presumably protect an AI mom if her donor suddenly decided to assert parental rights. But until someone contests such a document in court, its efficacy remains "iffy."
Most lesbian custody battles aren't Mom v. Donor; they're between mother and mother. For this reason, and because civil unions aren't recognized outside Vermont, Lashman advises her co-mothering clients to legally adopt their partners' birth children.
A closely watched case in this area involves Janet Miller-Jenkins, of Fair Haven, and her former civil union partner Lisa. Janet and Lisa were CU-ed in 2000. Two years later, Lisa became pregnant through donor insemination and delivered a baby girl. Janet never adopted Isabella, because she believed her civil-union license adequately protected her status as the girl's co-mother. And it would have if everyone had stayed in Vermont.
But in 2003, the Miller-Jenkinses' civil union was dissolved in Rutland Family Court, and Lisa took Isabella to Virginia. On July 1, 2004, that state's Affirmation of Marriage Act became law. The measure makes it illegal for Virginia to recognize a civil union performed in any other state. The same day, Lisa, who now describes herself as an "ex-lesbian," filed a suit in a Virginia court denying Janet all parental rights, including visitation. Lawsuits are currently pending in both states. In Virginia, Janet is fighting for her right to see her daughter. In Vermont, Lisa is appealing a ruling that her denial of Janet's visitation rights violates the terms of her dissolution agreement.
The couples that make the news tend to be the ones that have conflicts. We're much less likely to hear about the uncounted number of mothers, single and partnered, who are quietly conceiving and raising their children without men. A generation since the AI baby boom began, the medical profession has learned to accommodate, and even profit from, the trend. Vermonters are quickly catching up. Taking those lessons to the rest of the country may take a little longer.