Commentary Family

Stigma Around ‘Non-Traditional’ Families Won’t End With Assisted Reproductive Technology

Bianca Campbell

New research suggests the use of skin cells and stem cells to create biological children for couples or individuals with difficulty conceiving may one day become a reality. The thing is, it's not only necessary to make this assisted reproductive technology accessible to all people seeking to parent, but to make sure all the ways we form families are affirmed too.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new study from Cambridge University and the Weizmann Institute of Science predicts the use of skin cells and stem cells to create biological children for same-sex couples, single parents, and heterosexual couples with difficulty conceiving within two years. As a queer full-spectrum doula of color considering mamahood in the near future, I want as many parenting options as possible. But I wonder if this assisted reproductive technology will be truly accessible to me and my community, and if it reinforces a nuclear family ideal that further stigmatizes our choices.

Queer and trans folks have been making babies for a long time, and it’s rarely ever easy. Even when we create biological children, we have to fight to be recognized as their parents. Last year, a Texas same-sex couple fought for custody of their two biological newborns. (They used a surrogate, so they are each the father of one of the two boys.) The parents’ names weren’t even allowed on the birth certificates of their respective biological child. Without addressing the legalized discrimination against our families, the new technology won’t be enough to shield our reproductive choices from attack. Respectability through biological reproduction (and government-sanctioned marriage, might I add) will not save us.

“There’s a lot of weight that’s put on biology and often that’s too much,” said student-midwife Courtney Hooks, who has helped several queer and trans families give birth in Oakland, California.

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The biological emphasis in family planning creates an ableist culture at infertility clinics that focuses on “correcting” our bodies instead of celebrating our sexual lives and family choices. Many queer and trans folks, Hooks said, are fertile. “We just haven’t been having that kind of sex.” Instead, the language and framework at many clinics, not to mention the language in state and federal policies, see our bodies, transitions, and sexualities as a problem, and this new technology should be acknowledged with that in mind.

If it weren’t for the high cost, social stigma, and legal barriers, many of us could have children with the support of our community, co-parents, and partners using the variety of methods already available. It’s not only necessary to make skin cell and stem cell technology accessible, but to make sure all the ways we form families are affirmed too. 

Barriers to Having the Families We Want

For most people, access to health insurance is essential to comfortably and safely sustaining and growing families. In 2014, however, 25 percent of LGBTQ adults could not afford medical care, compared to 17 percent of non-LGBTQ people, according to Gallup. The poll reported that people identifying as bisexual and lesbian were the most likely of all groups categorized by sexuality to forgo care due to cost and the least likely to have developed a relationship with a medical provider. Further, a different survey found that trans people are disproportionately affected by a lack of insurance, affirming providers, and access to essential medical care.

Insurance isn’t the only barrier to having the families we want. In Atlanta, Jhavia Etheridge, a wellness counselor, and her partner plan on starting a family in five years, shortly after the technology is expected to be available. Etheridge is excited about possibly of using stem cells to have biological children with her partner. However, even with insurance, she fears that the technology, like others in the past, will be financially out of reach. A single IVF treatment costs an average of $12,000, and pregnancy is not guaranteed on the first treatment. Some families then incur the additional expense of surrogacy.

“More power to folks who can afford it, but I definitely cannot,” Etheridge said. She intends to stick with her plan to adopt, which has its own financial hurdles.

Right now, many of us are still trying to find and afford insurance. Once we get it, we seek a network of doctors we’ll actually use.

Reproductive justice activist Amir Jones focuses primarily on improving health-care access for queer and trans people in Atlanta, Georgia. When asked about the top health issues he hears when out in the community, Jones said, “People want to look at holistic health and wellness. They want to build relationships with affirming providers.”

We’re already less likely to seek medical care due to the transphobia and homophobia in the medical industry that we experience or anticipate. Fifty percent of the respondents to that survey on transgender health reported having to teach their medical providers about transgender care and 28 percent said that they had been refused care. It’s not very surprising, then, that 28 percent of the respondents said they had postponed or avoided medical treatment when they were sick or injured and 33 percent delayed or did not try to get preventive health care. It is not as easy for our community to enter a fertility clinic as it might be for other groups. We want to connect with a provider we can trust with our major decision to parent.

Many of us also face legal barriers to creating and sustaining the families we want. Some states, for example, require fertilization to occur at a medical center in order to revoke the parental rights of the egg or sperm donor. There are less expensive, more intimate options to create families outside of clinics, but families are at risk of entering taxing legal battles with sperm or egg donors.

Resiliently, we have dealt with these stigmas and barriers by creating and loving dynamic, non-nuclear families.

The Families We Already Have

Many of us either grew up in or descended from a family that did not look exactly like the white, American, heteronormative, patriarchal suburbanites we’ve been told to aspire toward. My grandmother never gave birth, but she raised five children, including me. (We referred to her as grandmother, even though she wasn’t our biological grandmother, out of respect.) People of color, queer people, and trans people buck against those societal expectations all the time, and have for decades.

Play cousins, neighbors dubbed auntie or tia, stepparents, and co-parents… Not being able to create biological children is not the same as not being able to create a family.

Raquel Willis of Beyond the Label, a YouTube series that often affirms the experiences of queer and trans people, said the potential for biological children is positive, but it’s a path toward a family she is no longer pursuing.

“Even as a kid, I thought about having children. I used to cry because I thought I couldn’t have kids,” she said.

“A lot of my worry was that my family wouldn’t accept my adopted children as much as my [siblings’] biological children.” Willis said it’s a worry she still occasionally has.

“But then, I realized good parenting goes beyond the biological.” Willis said she would adopt queer and trans youth specifically, a group facing disproportionate rates of homelessness. She said she hopes to use her lived experience to support her children as best she can.

We need to uplift the beautiful, multiple ways we already create families and demand the access to sustain these families. I want all of us to wake up on Mama’s Day and open up cards that praise the ingenuity and love of resilient LGBTQ parents. Our society, from the way we celebrate national holidays to the way we roll out new reproductive technologies, should do more to remind us that we are enough, our partners, our families are praiseworthy regardless of marriage and biological connection.

What can you do? You can visit MamasDay.org for messaging and amazing visuals that reflect the vast beauty of families like the one that raised me and the one that I and many others plan to create.

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