One child with two mothers, confounding the law

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In Switzerland homosexual couples have the right to register their partnership. The law does not officially authorise them to have children, however, and clearly forbids any type of adoption. But that doesn’t stop same-sex parents.

This content was published on February 6, 2013 - 11:00

“Before Elias* was born, we often asked ourselves how our friends would react, whether they would take it badly and whether our child would suffer …  But up to now the reactions have been positive, although it’s not always easy. It’s as if we have to go through a permanent coming out.”

Gabrielle* makes eye contact with Nathalie*, her partner. They are sitting around a table with about ten other young couples, a group of gay and lesbian parents who meet on the premises of a preschool in Bern once a month. “We come here so that our children can play but also to share our experiences, talk about everything and nothing,” Nathalie said.

Nathalie and Gabrielle are both 30, work part-time as nurses and have a strong desire to be mothers. “We met nine years ago in class. Last year we got ‘married’. Elias was born soon afterwards and we would like another child, if not two.”

The case of Elias is not isolated. According to some estimates, based on comparisons with other European countries, there are some 6,000 homosexual or transgender families in Switzerland with children.

And elsewhere?

The debate on marriage and adoption for same-sex couples is currently raging in several countries.

Joint adoption and access to medically assisted reproduction for same-sex couples is guaranteed by law in Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Great Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Argentina and individual states or provinces in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The adoption of a partner’s children is authorised, under certain conditions, in Germany and Iceland.

In France, President François Hollande has promised to guarantee homosexual couples the right to marriage and adoption. This pledge is contested by right-wing opposition and church movements.

In Italy, since the failure of the law on registered partnerships (DICP) in 2007, homosexual couples have no legal recognition.

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Particular partners

To become a parent, Gabrielle had to flout the law. “From the beginning we ruled out an anonymous donor. So we set out to find a man to help us.” Gay and lesbian associations regularly organise meetings for couples interested in homosexual parenting. On special blogs, posts of this kind are flourishing. “We met Elias’ father and his partner on the internet, we became friends and our joint project gradually started to become concrete.”

In Switzerland, same-sex couples are not permitted to take advantage of medically assisted reproduction. Some women choose to go abroad to more liberal countries like Spain or the United States. But the procedure can cost tens of thousands of francs, which not everyone can afford. Gabrielle and Nathalie decided to resort to more rudimentary methods. “We took a syringe and plastic pot from the hospital and then went ahead with the insemination ourselves at home. It took a while but finally it worked.”

Anne* (age 29) and Michelle* (age 31) opted for the same technique. Together for 12 years, the two women still had to wait two years before one of them got pregnant. “We both tried at the same time and then we let nature take its course,” Anne, the biological mother, explained.

“Doctors are not allowed to help us, so we just have to manage on our own, looking for information online and asking for help from friends. And it’s easier than you think. The day of the birth the doctor asked me if I had made love with a man … a little indiscreet, don’t you think?”

Swiss Law

In Switzerland, medically assisted reproduction, adoption in general, and adoption of a partner’s children by same sex-couples are prohibited.

Under the law on registered partnership, children are only marginally considered. In the case of lesbian couples, for example, if the sperm donor acknowledges the child, the lesbian partner has no legal status with regard to the child.  

In the view of organisations advocating rights for homosexuals, the current legal framework is discriminatory. In 2011, they submitted a petition with 19,000 signatures calling for equal opportunities for all families. This was reviewed by a parliamentary commission, which transformed it into a motion.

The text of this motion was accepted by the House of Representatives in December 2012. The Senate accepted a broader version of the text which includes general adoption.

If the motion is definitively accepted by both chambers, homosexuals will have the possibility to adopt their partner’s child, as long as the biological parent is either unknown, dead or has waived all of his or her parental rights and obligations – but only when adoption is in the best interests of the child.

Under this amendment, children born in homosexual families would have the certainty of being able to live with the second social parent if their first parent died.

Once approved by parliament, the modification of the law will be open to being contested by referendum. This mechanism of semi-direct democracy was already used by the Evangelical Party and the Swiss People’s Party in 2005 against the law on registered partnerships, which was finally accepted by 58% of voters.

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From taboo to political issue

Today, little Martha*, aged nine months, bounces happily in the arms of her “social mother” Michelle. Although their partnership is officially recognised, Anne and Michelle do not have equal rights with regard to the child. The law on registered partnerships, in force since 2007, forbids same-sex couples from adopting each other’s children, only recognising the role of the biological parent. This situation worries the women spoke to.

“Take the extreme case. If Anne died, I would have no right whatsoever and her parents could claim custody of our daughter,” Michelle said. “The same applies to thousands of children who live in homosexual families today.”

In fact it was precisely this veto on the right to adopt that allowed the law on registered partnerships to be accepted by popular vote. Five years later, however, the cabinet and parliament have launched a signal of openness, declaring themselves ready to authorise the adoption of a partner’s children, on condition that the other biological parent is either unknown, dead or agrees to waive his or her rights and obligations.

As is the case with Anne and Michelle. The man who provided them with sperm has effectively renounced the right to get to know Martha, as was planned since the beginning. The make-up of homosexual families is much more complex, however. Gabrielle and Nathalie’s child has two mothers and two fathers, for example. The biological father acknowledges his son and is present in his life, as is his partner. For these two couples, adoption would not come into play, even if the new law were passed. Their legal situation is equivalent to that of heterosexual parents who split up and form new relationships.

One society, several models

Elias can’t talk yet. When he is older he will certainly ask, as many children do, how he came into the world. Gabriella and Nathalie are not too worried about this. “We will simply explain to him that two woman alone cannot have children and that we needed a father. That’s all.”

“For us, it’s important to have other children being raised in homosexual households as reference points,” Nathalie explains. The meetings for homosexual parents also serve this purpose, showing the children that they are not the only ones living in an atypical family.

But the risk of stigmatisation still weighs heavily, as illustrated by the fact that the four women interviewed by wished to preserve their anonymity. “For us it’s probably easier,” Gabrielle says. “People in the street see us as two friends with a small child, and our model – with two mothers and two fathers – is possibly better accepted socially. Even our parents seem reassured that our daughter will have a male reference.

However, they don’t realise the pain they cause us by doubting our capacity to be full parents ourselves.”

Although adoption is not an issue for this couple, they believe the parliamentary debate has the merit of making homosexual families visible. “People don’t seem to be aware of our existence. It’s as if we live in the shadows. But society changes. Until five years ago adoption was unthinkable. Today, at least, it’s being talked about. We have to be patient. Switzerland, as you know well, is the country of small steps.”

*The names have been changed

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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