‘It Seems Every Other Lesbian Is Throwing Around Sperm and Getting Pregnant’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader revives our series with a rare perspective we haven’t heard from yet—a lesbian couple struggling to conceive:

I’ve read many, many of the stories you have posted regarding infertility, deciding to have children, and adoption—mostly to find answers to my own questions. The stories seem to be consistently from heterosexual relationships, and while I can relate to these on some level (infertility, financial strain, marriage), I am at the same time seeing them at such a distance. My experiences are not the same and I have many of the same options, but they are altogether different.

My wife and I have been married for three years. We decided to have children, and, as lesbians, were sent directly to a reproductive endocrinologist. We kept trying to tell the doctors and nurses (and each other) that we weren’t infertile ... we just didn’t have sperm!

Except it appears we are somewhat infertile. After four failed IUI cycles using my uterus and donor sperm, we reached the point at which we were told, “If it was going to happen this way, it would have already.” Our 20 percent chance was knocked down to 10 percent for further IUI, and they suggested IVF—or, to change tracks and let my wife become pregnant.

My wife is somewhat gender nonconforming, and her view of becoming pregnant herself is that she would do it if it were necessary for us to have a child—something we both want. But she is uncomfortable with the idea of being pregnant. I can understand her feelings and empathize with the choice. As her wife, I don’t want her to do something she isn’t excited about.

Our doctors can’t seem to get the language right; they talk about “her” baby and “my” baby, as if any baby we had wouldn’t simply be our baby. One doctor even told my wife that if later she “wanted her own baby,” then we could use embryos from my IVF for her to be pregnant. We understand at face value they are concerned with the biology of making this baby, but it’s hurtful.

Everyone says we’re lucky: We have two wombs, and sperm is inexpensive compared to surrogacy. Some people suggest we “just adopt” (we would if we could afford it!) or simply tell us to let my wife become pregnant.

The choice isn’t that simple. IVF is expensive, giving up the hope of being pregnant is difficult, and spending money on infertility is hard when it’s just taking away money we could use to raise the child. Having my wife go through IUI and spend another $6,000 on three or four chances at 20 percent sounds like bad odds ...

Some days it seems as if every other lesbian is just throwing around sperm and getting pregnant. Why should it be so difficult?

I never thought I would deal with infertility, and I am devastated at the thought of never being pregnant. I don’t even care about the baby’s genetics being mine; I simply want the experience of being pregnant with our child.

Thanks for letting me write it all down.

If you’d like to write down your own experience to share, please send us a note.

Meanwhile, for more reading on the subject of lesbian mothers-to-be, here’s Alana Semuels back in December 2014:

Increasingly, lesbian couples who want to have children are turning to men they know for genetic material, and are sometimes asking him to share some parenting responsibilities. It’s possible that gay men who use a surrogate to have a child are involving the mother in the child’s life too—at least if you believe the premise of the failed 2012 NBC comedy The New Normal.

“We are seeing a growing trend of a female, same-sex-couple parenting with the man who provides the genetic material but does not relinquish his rights as a sperm donor,” said Diana Adams, a New York lawyer who advises families on issues like these.

To be sure, this new type of family can create a minefield of legal issues. A Florida judge last year allowed the names of three parents on a birth certificate after a sperm donor sued a lesbian couple, who had been his friends, after they asked him to cede parental rights. Last October, California amended its family code to provide that a child can have more than two parents. And the case of Jason Patric, who donated sperm to his ex-girlfriend on the condition he wouldn’t be involved in the child’s life, and then changed his mind and sued for custody, got widespread media attention in 2012 after Patric started lobbying for more rights for sperm donors.

“Three-parent families will be one of the next major legal issues for the LBGTQ community,” Adams said.

But in the future, a sperm donor might not be necessary at all. In the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal sketched out “Five predictions about the future of reproduction”—the fourth claiming that “synthetic sperm will save the nuclear family”:

Researchers may ultimately be able to take a cell from an adult man or woman, turn it into a stem cell, then change that stem cell into a sperm or an egg. Doctors have already succeeded in breeding same-sex laboratory animals in this way.

Timothy Murphy is a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago whose work focuses on the bioethical implications of reproductive technologies for gay, lesbian, and transgender people. He points out that creating artificial sperm and eggs could, rather than leading to radical social change, actually preserve a normative family structure. “For gay and lesbian couples, the synthetic gametes would eliminate the need for a third party,” Murphy notes. This kind of assisted reproductive technology—“unnatural” as it might be—would allow same-sex couples to keep reproduction solely within the family.