SOMETIMES IT TAKES A VILLAGE…
Once upon a time the only option for having a baby was the proverbial ‘birds’ and ‘bees’ method. With recent legal and social changes, more and more happy non-traditional families are created. P-town proudly sells kid-size T-shirts boasting signs like “I have 2 mommies” or “I love my 2 dads”, while many one-parent-by-choice families have cheerful parent and child outings.
Such terms as ‘egg donor’, ‘sperm donor’, ‘traditional surrogate’, and ‘gestational carrier’ (third party reproduction), as well as ‘embryo donation’ and ‘intended parents’, left the realm of fertility offices and hear-says, and found their way into mainstream society. Still, many people don’t have a clear understanding of the terminology, and those that might benefit from such options may not know of their existence.
Many women and couples choose egg donation as a means to overcome age-related or illness-related decline in the number or quality of their eggs. They have an option of using a known donor (like a sister or a friend) or an anonymous donor. At first glance it may seem that a genetically related donor is the better option – continuity of genetic lineage, family relationship, and lower cost. But having a known donor may introduce social or emotional challenges, especially if the relationship between the two women changes over their lifetime, and may create conflicts for both the women and the child. Some feel that using an anonymous egg donor will simplify the process and allow for an excellent match to the intended mother without the social complications. The popularity of this option is evidenced by the tremendous number of egg donor agencies and the amount of college campus advertising to recruit desirable donors.
Using a sperm donor is a great option for same-sex female couples or single women, as well as heterosexual couples who for medical reasons do not have adequate sperm production. Like with the egg donors, people wishing to use donated sperm have an option of using a known donor or an anonymous one. Same legal and social complications might occur when using a known donor, but many people view this as an excellent way to preserve their family’s genetic lineage (for example, a lesbian woman who conceives with her partner’s brother’s sperm) or simply want to avoid the cost of purchasing sperm, especially if multiple samples will be required.
Women who are unable to carry a pregnancy (usually for medical reasons), or men who may want to conceive with a donor egg and their own sperm, frequently require the help of either a traditional surrogate or a gestational carrier. In traditional surrogacy, the surrogate is inseminated using the intended father’s sperm, but since the eggs are her own, she is the biological mother of the child. Because of the possible complications such an arrangement may entail, this option has recently fallen out of favor. Instead, a gestational carrier – a woman who has no genetic link to the child, but simply carries a pregnancy achieved with another woman’s egg and the designated sperm – is used more and more often.
A less talked about option in the field of third party reproduction is adopting a donor embryo. Couples who have undergone IVF (in vitro fertilization) may have extra embryos that are frozen in case there is no pregnancy in the first attempt, or if the couple wants to have more children in the future. Very frequently, however, these frozen embryos are not used, if the couple has completed their family-building. In fact, there are over 400,000 surplus unused embryos in the cryotanks of fertility centers in the United States alone! Some couples would like to help others and donate these unused embryos to give someone else a chance to become a parent by ‘adopting’ them. Hopefully, awareness of this option will encourage more couples to pursue this opportunity.
Because of social and legal ramifications of many ‘third party reproduction’ options, it is frequently recommended to enlist the help of a reproductive attorney to help navigate through state-specific laws. Going through the process may not be easy, but is oh so rewarding when the end result is a healthy baby in your arms. Many who become parents with alternative approaches to family-building phrase their feelings this way – what does genetics have to do with being a parent? Who said you have to give birth to a baby in order to be a proud and loving mother?