Your eggs, my uterus: shared motherhood

Globe and Mail, 01 April 2008

When Melanie Parish and Mel Rutherford decided to have a baby together, both women wanted to have a biological connection to their child.

So, four years ago, they harvested Ms. Rutherford's eggs, inseminated them with a donor's sperm through in vitro fertilization and implanted the embryos into Ms. Parish's uterus. Today, Ms. Rutherford is the genetic mother and Ms. Parish is the gestational mother of twin three-year-old boys - and they both feel equally "related" to their kids.

"For me, motherhood is about carrying the baby," says Ms. Parish, an executive coach living in Hamilton. "For her it is about being genetically connected."

It's a new shared-motherhood model that's increasingly being considered by same-sex couples, says Rachel Epstein, co-ordinator of the LGBT Parenting Network at the Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto.

Ms. Epstein, who runs a course called "Dykes Planning Tykes," says there's usually at least one couple in her class either going through it or contemplating it.

Inter-spousal egg donation, as it is legally called, is not for the faint of heart. The cost can easily run to $18,000, only about one-third of which is covered by drug plans. And there's no guarantee you'll get pregnant right away. Ms. Rutherford had to endure two rounds of egg harvesting and Ms. Parish went through six implantations over two years.

Egg donation, in particular, is physically demanding. It involves drugs to stimulate and mature extra follicles, whose progress has to be checked every few days by ultrasound. The drugs can affect your mood and balloon out your abdomen. "There was definitely some physical discomfort," Ms. Parish says.

"I didn't really understand what it would involve," says another mother, Jen (not her real name). Four years ago, Jen gave birth to a baby girl through straightforward donor insemination. But her partner, Kaye (also not her real name), who stayed at home to look after their daughter, was eager to experience carrying a baby, too. When donor insemination didn't work for her, their fertility doctor raised the option of Jen donating eggs to Kaye.

"It was gruelling," says Jen, an academic who lives in Toronto. She recalls injecting herself with drugs daily for about two weeks. She was bruised and uncomfortable. But she's glad she did it; two months ago, their son was born.

Though their daughter was born to Jen and their son to Kaye, genetically the kids are full siblings. For Jen, that's not so important. "Genetics for me is scientific," she says. "Our family is not based on genetics."

Kaye feels slightly differently. "I wanted them to have that connection," she says, "of feeling they're connected to each other and to us."

When Ms. Parish and Ms. Rutherford started out, there were also compelling legal reasons to consider this route. "We both wanted to be legally recognized as parents," Ms. Rutherford says. At that time, a child born to a same-sex couple had to be adopted by the non-gestational parent.

The women hoped that, given their demonstrable biological ties to the children, they would be able to win the right to both be recognized on the birth certificate - something that already had precedent in three U.S. states. After their sons were born, they were part of a legal challenge that led to Ontario's same-sex mothers winning that right as well.

Ms. Parish and Ms. Rutherford have been open with friends and family about how their kids were created. Although sometimes surprised, they've been supportive. "People make babies in different ways," says Ms. Rutherford, an associate professor of psychology at McMaster University.

Her mother, Janice Rutherford, who lives in Eugene, Ore., says she was excited when they told her. "I thought, wow, that makes sense." She says it's also heartwarming to see hints of her daughter in her grandchildren. "I see my kids in their faces," she says. "They do resemble Mel and her brother."

Jen and Kaye are keeping their arrangement private for now. Only Jen's sister and a few close friends know. They intend to tell the children about their birth stories when they're a bit older and everything is out in the open.

For all its high-tech history, though, Jen points out that their family is pretty much like any other. "In some ways it's as ordinary and mundane as it gets. Someone has to wash the bottles so the milk can be pumped, and the laundry still has to be folded."