Skip to main content

Science led to gay families: Law should follow

By Debora L. Spar. Special to CNN
April 3, 2013 -- Updated 1512 GMT (2312 HKT)
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
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1806 GMT (0206 HKT)
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1841 GMT (0241 HKT)
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1137 GMT (1937 HKT)
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
ADVERTISEMENT