Lesbian Mothers and Sperm Donors, Known or Otherwise

Lesbian couples who wish to have children born to one of the women use donor sperm.  Instead of the general discussion about sperm donors (or sperm providers–it is true that since most men are paid “donor” is perhaps misleading) that has predominated on the blog recently, I wanted to focus a bit on this one specific circumstance. 

While some lesbian couples may wish to co-parent with a donor/provider (and perhaps his partner), I’m going to exclude them from consideration for the moment.  Instead I’ll focus on what I believe to be a substantially larger group:  lesbian couples who wish to raise a child with only two legal/social parents–the members of the couple.  

For these lesbian couples, the role of the donor/provider can be a source of some concern.   Most obviously, they want to avoid his recognition as a legal parent of the child.   Legal recognition of the donor/provider as a parent gives the donor/provider  the legal right to intrude into the planned lesbian family’s decision making.    It might also preclude legal recognition of the lesbian co-mother if a the court is determined to recognize only two parents.

Depending on what state law applies, there are basically two ways to ensure that the donor/provider does not acquire legal rights.   In some states statutes provide that a donor is not a parent.   (Washington happens to be one such state.)   In such a state, the women can use a known donor, secure in the knowledge that he will not be a legal father.       

Some states do not have a legal provision like Washington’s.   Thus, a donor/provider might be a legal parent of the child by virtue of the genetic link between parent and child.   In a state like this, the best way for the women to protect themselves from possible interference by the donor would be to use an anonymous donor.   An unidentified and unidentifiable man could not threaten their family. 

I know that for many who have commented on my blog recently the choice of an unknown donor is extremely problematic.   But were I giving advice as a lawyer to women in a state where a donor can be recognized as a parent, I would suggest to them that this is the best way to ensure their security and autonomy.  

Lesbian couples might also have a second set of concerns about the sperm donor’s/provider’s role, one that is more difficult to address through law.  This concern might influence their choices even in state’s like Washington where the donor is not a legal father.  

Lesbian couples would like their families to be viewed as whole and intact families and respected as such.   But there’s a wide-spread sense that children either need or must have both a mother and a father.   (Some of this is clearly fed by the genetic essentialism that insists that a donor must be a father of the child whether he has any parental role in a child’s life or not.)   If the donor is around and visible in the child’s life, for some people he may be the “real” second parent of the child, rather than the lesbian c0-mother.     So here again, in order to protect the family they wish to form and the legitimacy of the second mother, lesbians might opt for an unknown (and unknowable) donor/provider.  

My point here is that there are legitimate concerns that could lead lesbians to select unknown sperm donors/providers even where they think it might be beneficial to their children to have access to the donor/provider.   If you want to increase the likelihood that lesbian couples will elect to use identified or identifiable sperm donors/providers, these concerns need to be accommodated.  

In part that means enacting law that ensures that the donor/provider is not a legal father.  That ensures the legal security of the planned lesbian family.   The second concern, which goes beyond law to cultural/social ideas of what constitutes a family,  is more difficult to address.     I suppose this requires us to accept families as they present themselves to us.  

Perhaps it is counter-intuitive to suggest that more children of donor/provider sperm would have access to information about their genetic lineage if there were less insistence that the donor/provider was  really a child’s parent.     Counter-intuitive or not, I think it’s true.         



4 responses to “Lesbian Mothers and Sperm Donors, Known or Otherwise

  1. As a lesbian parent I could not agree more with this article. Thank you for adding your voice and knowledge to this conversation.

  2. What do you mean by counter-intuitive? Can you please put the phrase “counter-intuitive” another way, Julie?

    Please write back as a response message just here, Cheers.

  3. I chose to use a known donor because I am adopted and I didn’t want my child to not at least know his/her bio father. The wondering is torturous and I wouldn’t want to bring that onto my kid. I think that children have the right to know where they came from and that it’s unfortunate that the system is still so perilous for those of us trying to form unconventional families.

  4. Since you’ve previously differentiated between the term parent and legal parent, what is the harm in referring to the sperm provider as parent? Or, if you must have a qualifier, biological parent.

    Society is already accustomed to the idea of parents without parental rights, as in the case of adoption.

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