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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 10:11 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT