It's shaping up to be a banner week for the New York Times attention to LGBT families. Yesterday's paper edition included a front page article, "Who's on the Family Tree? Now It's Complicated."
Jennifer Williams, a lesbian, gives birth to a child, Mallory, using donor sperm, so that her sister and brother-in-law, who could not conceive, can adopt the child. Williams has a partner and also has her own biological child, conceived with a donor. The children are legal cousins and biological half-siblings. Where do they fit on a family tree? (Answer: They're cousins, but at home sometimes the six year old calls Mallory his sister).
Other examples: a lesbian couple in which the nonbio mom adopted the children born to her partner, conceived with a known donor who wanted the children to know who he was. The donor, who was 45 when the children were conceived, has two biological children and two stepchildren. One mom speaks of the family having a "triple family tree." And a heterosexual couple with a biological child, a child conceived with donor sperm, and two adopted children. Their family tree ignores biology, although they have a separate set of baby books that include, for example, "donor siblings," the term the couple uses for other children born with sperm from the same donor.
The article cites some examples of how schools deal with these types of family trees. Examples: some schools skip family trees; some have children write stories about family history instead. There are also new kinds of family trees, with circles, sqaures, dotted lines, straight lines, and no lines.
This article fits well with my post yesterday, which included reference to sociologist Judith Stacey's new book, Unhitched. She describes numerous complex parenting arrangements by the gay men she studied.
One thing the article doesn't say is that these complex families have existed for at least decades. It's just that no one talked about it. My own research has uncovered numerous medical and legal articles about what was then called "artificial insemination" in the 1930's and 40's and later. The authors uniformly agreed that secrecy was the way to go. (They also agreed that the woman's husband was not really the child's legal father without an adoption, but that, given the secrecy, no one would know this to challenge it. I'm working on an article exploring this fascinating history). And I've seen research estimating that from 2% to 4% of children are not the biological child of the man they think is their father, presumably largely as a result of their mother's affair with another man.
There may be a quantitative difference now, but mostly there's a difference in openness. Same-sex couples can't pretend, and different-sex couples may be less inclined to do so. The article says that a new standard birth certificate questionnaire (still being phased in) asks about whether and what type of reproductive technology was used in conceiving the child. If parents are required to provide these answers (the questionnaire is not usually publicly available; it's used for data collection, with a large focus to date on prenatal care and other demographic information about the mother), it will vastly increase what we know about the difference between biological and legal parentage. (Right now no data is collected on donor insemination; if you see a statistic about the total number of children conceived in that way, it's at best an educated guess. Data is maintained on more invasive assisted reproductive techniques).
Of course no one is asking a married woman if she had sex with someone other than her husband. And (so far) no state requires that every newborn be DNA tested to see if the birth mother the genetic mother and her husband the genetic father. Although some experts recommend this approach, I reject it.