As much as I find myself entertaining for joking with a partner that I’m not ready to be a dad (see above), there is a darker shadow to it. People in long-term relationships with partners assigned the same biological sex as them at birth (for shorthand, I’ll use the term ‘same-sex couples’) face more challenges than most straight couples to have children. I say ‘most’ because, of course, this isn’t an issue unique to LGBT+ people; infertility challenges conception for many straight couples in ways that can be frustrating and heart-breaking. Conversations like the above, trivial though they may be, demonstrate the opposite challenge to a brilliant article already written for the FemSoc blog called ‘The Contraception Conundrum’. For LGBT+ people, one of the biggest reproductive issues we (will) face is more aptly called ‘The Conception Conundrum’.
At the age of twenty, the prospect of having children has figured as little more than a tiny spot on my radar. However, it does figure. In theoretical conversations with straight friends about what we’d be like as parents, to questioning whether we would even want to fulfil that role in the first place as well as considering how parenthood might fit into career plans, the obvious biological hurdles that face queer women are often under scrutiny. As a fifteen-year-old, barely out of the closet and still working to navigate my sexuality, I was questioned by my friends about my putative future family. In a society where partners and families are still understood to be an inseparable strand of the future, bound up with work and travel, the possibility of having a family is often taken to be more than a possibility and is thought of as a certainty. This is, perhaps, informed by the way that we are taught sex education, as well as by the silence surrounding fertility in our culture. Nevertheless, the inevitability of motherhood – for many see it as an inevitability – forces the conception conundrum into my thoughts as a future concern, while many of my peers are challenged by the immediacy of the contraception conundrum.
The ‘Contraception Conundrum’ arises from the fact that pregnancy, for many straight couples, is a real risk, particularly given that infertility issues often don’t arise until people start ‘trying’ to have children. Therefore, most straight people assume that they can have children until it’s proven otherwise. I’m going to have to disregard the difficulties faced by two male-assigned people here, because it’s almost certainly harder to negotiate surrogacy than impregnation. However, one option for queer women is a ‘homemade’ pregnancy, where insemination from a sperm donor takes place at home. Aside from the ‘ick’ factor that many women-oriented women would feel at this prospect, it’s more complicated than merely using the sperm of a friend or relative. How do you negotiate the donor’s relationship to the child when you have no legal or medical professionals to intervene? How often can you try it as an option, if, as is likely, you don’t conceive the first time? How might it change your relationship to the donor? It’s possible to find someone who is a stranger, but how might that affect things and what risks does it add? If you can’t screen the donor, known or not, for various medical conditions, what impact might that have? Some donors insist on ‘natural insemination’ rather than ‘artificial insemination’, which creates a transactional element to sperm donation: you can have my sperm, but only if I can have sex with you. Some of these men change their mind on the day. How do you respond to that? These are all questions which are either unanswerable or immensely difficult to navigate.
Given that ‘natural’ methods are largely out of the picture, for many same-sex couples, medical intervention is almost inevitable when they decide to have children. These are intrusive and expensive, and often do not work the first time; this isn’t limited to same-sex couples who wish to have children, and obviously some straight couples do not expect to have to go through IVF or any other ‘artificial’ means of becoming pregnant. It is, however, an additional concern – although it’s likely that the thought and effort required would ensure that parents are entirely certain and prepared for children, once they are born. Moreover, given the length of time it can take to conceive using IVF or other interventionist routes to pregnancy, it may actually become more urgent. Same-sex couples can’t just ‘try’ to conceive in the same way that straight couples can; at the very least, far more people and processes are involved in the ‘trying’.
A final emotional hurdle is the question of biological relationships, which is another issue I have been confronted with by friends on multiple occasions. I’m no scientist, but I would hope that the potential for three-parent babies, as used currently for preventing mitochondrial disorders, would be an option open to queer women at least in the future. For some, this would be a welcome and validating way to feel connected to their offspring. Some queer women might choose to foster that sense of attachment by contributing either eggs or their womb to the project of creating and incubating a foetus. Evidently, this isn’t the same as sharing half of your DNA with your significant other to create a child with your genetic fingerprints, but it’s a workable alternative. My personal standpoint is that people have been raising children that aren’t biologically ‘theirs’ for years, in the capacity of step-parents and adoptive or foster parents, and so it seems pointless to challenge non-straight people about the fact that their children may not carry their genes.
Of course, if you’re not attached to biological relationships and unconvinced by any of the processes detailed above, adoption is an option. Same-sex couples in the UK have been able to adopt children together since the Children and Adoption Act of 2002, which removed the necessity of marriage as a prerequisite to adoption. Interestingly, at the time the Act was passed, many supporters stressed that their interest in approving the Act was not for the improvement of gay rights in the UK, but rather to provide as many children as possible with supportive families and home environments. As of last year, the Independent reported that the amount of LGBT+ couples choosing to adopt was increasing, while their straight counterparts were decreasing in numbers; some have connected this to the legalisation of gay marriage in 2014. It may well be that adoption is the best possible solution, providing children with new homes and couples with children to raise and nurture. However, taking the argument to its logical conclusion would imply that LGBT+ couples should always adopt in preference to having their own children. No one should feel obligated to adopt, regardless of their sexuality and fertility status. It’s also immensely complicated to go through adoption processes. Adoption, then, is not always an ideal or satisfactory option, regardless of its other moral implications.
To conclude, there are a few options, some more appealing than others, but all seem to be slightly dissatisfying. We remain at an impasse. For many LGBT+ people, the prospect of conception is a conundrum, and one with no immediate answer or solution.