A confusing family tree in Omaha

For this week’s instalment of the Reproductive Revolution, we go to Nebraska. Gay couple Matthew Eledge, 32, and his husband, Elliot Dougherty, 29, from Omaha, wanted to start a family.

Their project became a family affair -- which makes the organisation of the pregnancy a bit difficult to follow. Matthew provided the sperm. Matthew’s mother Cecile, 61, who had three children in her younger days, volunteered to become both the surrogate mother and the grandmother. Elliot’s sister Lea, 25, donated the eggs. She is married and had just had a second child, so fertility was obviously not going to be a problem.

IVF procedures (which cost the couple about US$40,000) yielded three viable embryos. One was transferred to Cecile’s uterus; the other two remain frozen. Her pregnancy went relatively smoothly and a week ago, she delivered her own granddaughter, Uma, at the Nebraska Medical Center.

And, of course, there was great rejoicing in the Eledge and Dougherty families. Matthew told the LGBT editor for BuzzFeed News:

“... this has been a two-year process. It was all a theory. But then through creation and creativity and imagination and dreams, she became a thing, a physical thing. That’s when I think I lost it, when I realized she’s no longer a thought, an idea. She’s here! We did this. We all did this together.” 

They did indeed. And they created a tangled mess while they were at it.

From a legal standpoint, the child’s parentage is, to be tactful, complicated. “Let’s just say we will NOT be framing and hanging up Uma’s birth certificate,” Matthew told Buzzfeed News. In Nebraska, the father is the sperm donor and the mother is the gestational carrier. So, in the eyes of the law, Matthew and his mother are listed as father and mother, which rings of incest. “This looks really creepy for us,” Matthew confessed. “We have gay marriage, but we have an entire structure that hasn’t caught up.” 

Unfortunately, when the structure does catch up, it is likely to look quite creepy.

First, the exorbitant cost reflects the complex, jury-rigged work-around that is required for conception. Two men cannot produce a baby. Even with free eggs and free gestation, baby Uma still cost $40,000 – compared to $0 for natural conception. That is a lot of money, so there will be pressure on the “structure” to lower the price, either through government subsidies or by employing women in poor countries where surrogacy is not regulated. More than creepy, this will be exploitative.

Second, Uma will grow up without a mother. Matthew believes that this doesn’t matter because the couple has lots of female relatives and friends. One is even donating her breast milk:

“We love women — we think women should rule the world. Elliot’s sister donated her eggs, my mom carried her, and we have this dear beautiful friend giving her this nourishment. Our daughter, Uma, gets to be surrounded by all these smart, beautiful, compassionate women.”

But as every experienced mother or father knows, it’s what happens inside the home that counts. Two men can be tender, affectionate fathers, but they cannot be a mother. A bevy of women can be loving aunties but they cannot be a mother. 

Third, making gay marriage appear less “creepy” involves changing the law so that birth certificates reflect the new normal. In this case, the biological parents are Matthew and Lea. But will Lea’s husband be happy if her name appears on Uma’s birth certificate? What Matthew and Elliot would probably prefer is for their own names to appear as Parent 1 and Parent 2. But this cheats Uma (and her descendants) of any knowledge of her true parentage. This problem could be solved by adding Lea as Parent 3. To give the full picture of where Uma came from, Cecile could be added as Parent 4. And having four legal parents is pretty creepy.

In short, tampering with “the structure” will just make things creepier and creepier and more and more distant from biological truth. This might make gay couples happy but it’s a sure recipe for unhappy children.


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