Sunday 8 December 2019

"I've always wanted to be pregnant and Chris would rather have a fork stuck in her eye"

Bestselling Irish author Emma Donoghue talks to Aine Nugent about lesbian motherhood and her decision to use an anonymous sperm donor to father her two children

Emma Donoghue and her partner had two children via one
sperm donor in Canada
Emma Donoghue and her partner had two children via one sperm donor in Canada

Aine Nugent

Nolan (22) is a handsome mix of Irish-Italian. He enjoys boxing, coin collecting and writes poetry. He can be, according to himself, a "bit lackadaisical" but women who know him comment on his "brilliant white smile and attractive looks". Better yet, Nolan wants to father my baby.

So does Keith (24), who at 6ft 1in lists basketball as his favourite hobby. He's a global markets analyst with a share in an organic farm. He loves Ireland, home of his grandfather, but is American by birth. He wants to be my child's father too, but I won't be bringing either of them home to meet mother.

Nolan and Keith are two of six men of Irish extraction who are sperm donors with Cryos, a Danish firm used by fertility clinics here for women whose partners cannot produce sperm, have a hereditary condition, or single women who want a baby. It is also popular with lesbian couples.

There are 385 donors listed on Cryos, although the company also has banks in India and America. There are dozens of other agencies offering the same service, but Cryos is considered the most reputable by Irish doctors. You can search by specific characteristics: for example, a Caucasian with blue eyes and brown hair, which offers 46 matches. Many come with a photograph of the donor as a baby himself.

Proceeding to the checkout (the 'basket' is a pram) allows the delivery, in frozen 'straws' on dry ice, to be shipped within two days to the privacy of your own home. The sample remains useable for a week in a special container, as some timing is required to coincide with ovulation. However, if you have it sent to one of the several clinics in Ireland which provide donor insemination services, liquid nitrogen tanks allow samples to be held for up to six months. Costs range from around €200 to €800 depending on quality (motility) and screening.

Picking a donor is the easy bit; the legalities surrounding parentage are more complicated. Irish law allows only the biological parents to be deemed the official ones. For Irish author and lesbian Emma Donoghue (41), recently short listed for the Man Booker prize, it was a good reason to have her two children in Canada, where she now lives with her partner, Chris.

"It would have been that much harder, legally and logistically [to have the babies in Ireland], so I'm not sure we would have had a family. Knowing that Chris would not have a solid legal relationship with our kids would have made it difficult."

Dr Anthony Walsh, director of SIMS fertility clinic in Dublin says lesbians make up around 15pc of his client bank for sperm-donor treatments, with a further 15pc being single women. This means that 60pc of the women attending SIMS for fertilisation by donor sperm are in heterosexual relationships. The success rate using donor sperm is around 30pc per cycle.

"There isn't a donor bank here, but there's no demand for one to be honest. We use Cryos because it guarantees anonymity. Nobody wants to take on the responsibility of someone banging on the door saying, 'Hi Dad' later on, but there's no legal reason you couldn't have a sperm bank here.

"Well," he adds with a note of caution, "other than the fact that the population is so small you could potentially have the guy down the road as your child's father."

Accidental incest

Indeed, the maximum number of children a donor can father in Ireland is three, although those from the same family count as one. Anyone using a sperm donor is given the option of 'reserving' some for a future pregnancy to ensure that all children are full siblings.

"All countries have a limit to prevent the risk of consanguinity (accidental incest). In the UK, it's 10 per donor and in the States, 50. It's all very mathematical and designed to bring the risk of close relatives marrying down to below the normal population."

Donoghue says lesbian couples have to deal with three pregnancy issues that heterosexual couples don't: who to select as donor, who to be birth mother and what the child will call its parents. She considered asking "several men in our lives" but opted instead for the same anonymous donor which they selected from four -- "of which three sounded ghastly and one sounded wonderful".

Donoghue says the donor had "far better genetic material than me in every way", so they used the same man for both children. He is a 'yes' donor, who is made aware he has offspring and allows for possible contact at a later date. A 'no' donor remains completely anonymous.

The five-page file they have on him will be shown to their children when they are older. "If, when our son is 18 and our daughter 14, they want to meet him, that's grand. He's no threat to us, and I feel only gratitude to him. Of course, if he turns out to be Mark Ruffalo in 'The Kids Are Alright', I will have to have a wild affair with him!" she jokes.

The 'procedure' was carried out in a state-funded clinic in Ontario, which paid for all medical costs. "By great good luck it worked for us first time, both times," she says of son Finn (six) and daughter Una (three).

It was all quite formal, although Donoghue admits to many friends opting for the DIY version. "It's basically just ... squirting!"

Ah, yes, the turkey baster question. Dr Walsh says a syringe works just as well and perhaps a little more neatly, but his clinic will do the job instead if the couple wishes for a small fee.

Back to Donoghue's other dilemmas. After considering 'Chris' and 'Emma' as their monikers, they felt the children needed special titles and decided on Maman for Chris, with her French background, and 'Mum' for Emma.

"In fact, they've mostly ended up calling us Chris and Emma after all," she says, proving that kids are well able to make their own choices. Choosing which of them would be the birth mother was very simple, says Donoghue. "I've always wanted to be pregnant and Chris would rather have a fork stuck in her eye."

What about dad?

What about the ethical elephant in the room, though? Does it not matter at all that Dad won't be around? A study carried out in the US among 485 donor-conceived adults suggested that donor offspring are more than twice as likely to struggle with substance abuse and delinquency, and more than 1.5 times as likely to struggle with depression compared with those raised by their biological parents.

They also fare worse when compared to those raised by adoptive parents, according to the authors of 'My Daddy's Name is Donor', Elizabeth Marquardt and Karen Clark, from the Institute of American Values, who found that two-thirds of donor offspring believe that they should have the right to know the identity of their biological fathers.

"What seems especially troubling for some donor offspring is the deliberateness with which they were denied knowledge of or a relationship with their sperm-donor biological fathers," says Marquardt. "Before they were ever born, their mothers and others decided that this man -- their father -- should not be of importance to them."

But Donoghue believes the concept of a father figure is a rather woolly one. "Does it mean a male parent or someone to learn a masculine social role from? My son seems to be getting his sense of what a boy is, and what a man is, from his wide social circle and from TV; he doesn't need a man actually living in the house for that.

"As for parenting, I'd say kids of both genders need many things, but any parent -- or, even better, two parents -- will do their best to provide, in conjunction with the other important people, uncles, friends, teachers, coaches, in the kids' lives," she continues. "In our house, the jobs are distributed fairly randomly, not along a mummy/daddy axis: Chris teaches them to ice skate and wash up; I bake cakes with them and I'm in charge of maths homework."

Dr Donal O Mathuna is senior lecturer in Ethics at DCU, and while he says the use of regulated sperm banks may be "ethically responsible", he questions whether it is fair to bring up a child in a fatherless home.

"It's the responsibility of a mother to ensure additional risks are not placed on children. In an ideal situation, a child has a mother and a father. Parents die, or don't or can't always fulfil parental responsibility, but choosing consciously to have a child this way does raise ethical considerations. Why deny the child the benefit of their father? Are there needs that will go unmet if he isn't present?"

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church thinks so. In a submission to Government on Assisted Human Reproduction in 2001, it called for the treatment of infertility through the donation of human reproductive material (eg, sperm) to be prohibited by law.

"In cases where the donation of reproductive material ... has already taken place, the right of a person to know the identity of his/her biological parents should take precedence over the right to confidentiality of the donor."

Furthermore, it says that "while infertility is often a grave disappointment and even a source of stress for couples who wish to have a child, it is not a life-threatening illness" and recommended that funding be put instead toward "identifying the causes (including social or lifestyle causes) of infertility; and to treating infertility itself, rather than simply to the facilitation of circumventive procedures".

Dr O Mathuna questions the ethics of sperm donation generally. "It's considered unethical by us all to sell any part of our body, so why is sperm different?," he asks.

"Struggles may arise for children born this way by not knowing their genetic heritage," he adds, although acknowledges the lengths to which ethically responsible sperm banks ensure medical histories, at least, are known.

Donoghue, meanwhile, considers genetics overrated and, indeed, the information given by donor clinics is comprehensive.

Keith's four grandparents are still alive and his father "thinks he's musical, but he really isn't". Heart conditions, genetic disorders and even eye colour of three generations are recorded.

There is genetic screening for cystic fibrosis, for instance, for which Ireland has the highest rate in Europe. There is also screening for HIV, hepatitis, syphilis and a host of other communicable ailments. Try asking your fiancé's granddad about that!

The topic of absent-father children has been covered by Donoghue in her writing. Her short story 'Touchy Subjects' brings together Padraic and his wife's best friend Sarah in a Dublin hotel room for a brief, loveless assignation, which turns out to be both funny and embarrassing.

But it is the legal angle she is interested in -- the open Canadian society allows both herself and Chris full parental rights and they are treated, legally and socially, like any other family.

She pre-empts questions from others by volunteering the simple sentence, "Oh, he doesn't have a dad, he has two mums", claiming people respond very well when you've removed the uneasy guesswork and embarrassment.

The law in Ireland

In a case appealed to the Supreme Court in 2009, McD vs L, a gay man, having become a sperm donor to a lesbian couple, was to take the role of 'favourite uncle' as agreed by the trio, with access at the couple's discretion.

He made more of an appearance than they wanted and they fell out. The couple decided to relocate to Australia with the child, but McD sought an injunction to prevent them travelling, and requested guardianship of his son.

The High Court initially denied his application, but he was granted access on appeal. Ms Justice Denham spoke of the benefit to the child of "the society of his father" as the reason for her ruling. The case added to incomplete Irish law. A biological or adopting father is the only father. A second 'mum' is never a parent.

With rights, of course, come responsibility, and many donors opt for anonymity precisely so they won't be caught out later for maintenance payments, foregoing rights for that very reason.

In the UK, the law states that a donor father may be considered the child's parent with financially responsibility.

One unwitting donor who fell foul of British law was Andy Bathie, a fireman who fathered a child for a lesbian couple who later split up and was chased down by the Child Support Agency and the biological mother. He now forks out £425 a month in maintenance for the child. Could such a thing happen here too?

David Bergin of O'Connor & Bergin family law solicitors is in no doubt. "There's every chance a case will be brought after the McD outcome," he says. "It's logical that if you have rights of access to a child, you have corresponding duties and obligations. It's a far-reaching case and underlines the legal significance of the blood link."

He is less convinced about the remedy open to children whose parents aren't both biological. "Currently if you have an unmarried male/female couple and she has a child, the father must apply for legal guardianship which he can do by simply making a Statutory declaration, or if she objects, he can go to court, where 80-85pc of applications are successful.

"However, for a same-sex couple, it's not the same. There are absolutely no rights at all for the non-biological parent. They can't apply for access, or have a say in medical treatment, religion, even a passport."

Would full gay marriage change the situation? "Absolutely," says Bergin. "It would be a family unit as defined by our Constitution with all the rights that confers."

Irish Independent

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