Skip to main content

Science led to gay families: Law should follow

By Debora L. Spar. Special to CNN
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Wed April 3, 2013
Michael Eidelman, left, and A.J. Vicent pose with their twins, who were born via artificial insemination and a surrogate mom.
Michael Eidelman, left, and A.J. Vicent pose with their twins, who were born via artificial insemination and a surrogate mom.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Debora Spar: Historically, families could not begin without a mother and father
  • Spar: But technology and surrogacy accomplish what biology couldn't
  • Spar: Gay couples using surrogacy more and more; lesbians using sperm banks
  • All these kids born in nontraditional homes deserve parents to be married, she says

Editor's note: Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College, is the author of "The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception" (2006). Her next book, "Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection," is set to be published in September.

(CNN) -- Of all the arguments swirling around the legality of same-sex marriage, it's clear that a major concern is, as always, the kids.

Supporters argue that same-sex parents need to provide their children with a stable and supportive family home, complete with the legal protections afforded heterosexual married couples. Opponents claim that children raised by same-sex parents are wounded in some fundamental way by being denied the "normal" benefits of having both a mother and father at home.

What is lost, remarkably, in both these arguments is the science that enabled families headed by same-sex couples to exist at all.

Debora Spar
Debora Spar

Until recently, families had to consist, at least at the outset, of a mommy and a daddy, each biologically necessary to bring children into being. Even if the mother died in childbirth or the father disappeared shortly thereafter, the physiological basis of the nuclear family remained intact: one mother, one father, and a child conceived of their union.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



From this unvarying biological fact came millennia of social norms and structures. Mothers stayed with their children to provide nourishment and nurture in the early days of infancy; fathers stayed, generally, to ensure that their genetic offspring had some chance of reaching adulthood and sustaining the family line.

Love didn't count so much in marriage, historically speaking, nor was there a sense of purpose that extended beyond the creation of children. And because these children could only be born through heterosexual sex, no model of marriage outside these biologically driven norms existed.

All this changed, however, with the advent of assisted reproduction technologies, commonly known as ART.

As long ago as the 18th century, instances of artificial insemination with a husband's sperm were reported. But the first case of insemination with donor sperm happened in the 19th century, when a doctor in Philadelphia used sperm from one of his best-looking medical students to impregnate a supposedly infertile woman. The technique worked, a child was born and the woman (who was told she was having an operation to cure her infertility) never knew of the switch.

Children and same-sex marriage

After that point, as word slowly spread, doctors began to quietly experiment with artificial insemination with donor sperm, working only with infertile heterosexual couples, turning to friends of the couple or -- once again -- their medical students.

Over time, though, as the practice became more widespread and eventually commercial, single and lesbian women began availing themselves of the wares sold openly from sperm banks such as California Cryobank and Cryos International. For a few hundred dollars a vial, women began creating families that could not have been imagined before; families created from the beginning without a father.

Even more radical was the invention, in 1978, of in-vitro fertilization, or IVF, the now-common technique in which egg and sperm meet in a laboratory petri dish and create an embryo that is then implanted in the would-be mother's womb.

Once again, the earliest users of IVF were infertile heterosexual couples; and once again, the technology soon slipped into wider social circles, enabling people to become parents in a whole range of previously unimaginable ways. There was always adoption, but that avenue was largely closed to gay couples. Now, using IVF and a surrogate carrier, a gay man could contract for the creation of a child both legally and socially his.

Using IVF, a surrogate and donated eggs, a gay couple could mix and match their sperm with the desired characteristics of an egg donor, creating children with, say, the actual genes of one partner and the mimicked characteristics of the other. Today, anecdotal data suggest that gay men are among the largest users of surrogacy services. Cryobank reports that in 2009, one-third of its clients were lesbian couples. Ten years ago, it was 7%.

Technology has enabled what biology could not, creating millions of children for parents desperate to conceive them. Most of these formerly infertile parents are straight; but many, and a rapidly growing number, are gay. They are the families created on the back of technological advance, families whose legal status has not yet caught up with their lives.

Technology always moves faster than the law. But in these cases, the products of technological advances are not faster vehicles or better widgets. They are children, hundreds of thousands of them, growing up in families no longer constrained by nature's original dictate.

It is kids who are shaping different norms of parenting and different kinds of care. And it is kids who deserve the same rights afforded their friends and classmates -- the right to grow up in a legally sanctioned family, regardless of who their parents are and how they came into being. To treat them otherwise would be truly inconceivable.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Debora Spar.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT