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Going solo: fertility treatment options and the law for women starting a family on their own

29 March 2010
By Natalie Gamble
Partner with Gamble and Ghevaert LLP
Appeared in BioNews 551
It's tough to get life sorted as a modern woman. Education, work and finances now commonly take women well into their thirties before they decide to start a family, and not everyone manages to find the right partner by the time they get there. It is perhaps not surprising that increasing numbers of women are making the decision to start a family independently. 'Solo' mothers (as distinct from single mothers) are those who make a positive decision to go it alone and to conceive without a partner - but as well as the social and financial implications of this choice, there are a number of legal implications which all solo mothers in the UK ought to give careful consideration.

One option for solo mothers is to conceive through sperm donation at a licensed clinic. The sperm is screened, tested and quarantined, ensuring the safety of mother and child and the quality of the sperm. A range of treatments are available, including intra-uterine insemination (IUI) and IVF and potentially even treatment with donor eggs, depending on the woman's age and medical history, and assessed with medical guidance from the clinic involved.

One of the biggest longer term advantages for many solo mothers is the parental autonomy and legal clarity this option brings: the status and responsibilities of the donor are excluded by law, and in practice there is no other parent to manage. Of course, this has its downside too, and it is important for a solo mum to ensure she will have all the practical support she will need as chief carer and breadwinner, and to make careful provision in her will to ensure her child is fully protected if anything happens to her.

Children conceived through sperm donation at licensed clinics in the UK now have the right to find out the donor's identity (and possibly to make contact with genetic half siblings) once they reach the age of 18, which means that their genetic heritage is available to them if they wish to find out more. For many solo mother families, this offers a good balance: parental autonomy for mum during childhood, but the option for the child to contact the donor and siblings in later life.

In years gone by, it was difficult for single women to obtain treatment with donor sperm at a licensed clinic. Until 2009, the law provided that fertility clinics had to consider the welfare of a child before offering treatment, 'including the need of the child for a father' - for many years many clinics interpreted this as a bar on treating single women. Clinical practice evolved over time to a more flexible approach, and in 2009 the law was updated so that clinics now have to consider the child's need for 'supportive parenting'. This was explicitly worded to be more inclusive of single women (and lesbian couples) and means that single women should now not have any difficulty accessing licensed treatment, albeit that donor sperm may be in short supply in some places and that treatment may need to be privately funded.

Another option is known donation or co-parenting. Some solo mothers 'team up' with a man who is willing to act as a known donor or co-parent, often gay or single. Every situation is different, and the range of involvement from the biological father after conception can stretch from none to full shared parenting. Different treatment options are also available, including natural conception, artificial insemination at home and IUI or IVF at a licensed clinic.

It is important in such situations to think through and manage the longer term and legal issues from the outset. Unless conception occurs at a licensed clinic, the donor will be the child's legal father and will be both legally and financially responsible for the child. If conception occurs at a licensed clinic, it may be possible to register the donor with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and thereby exclude his parental status, but care needs to be taken (and it may be necessary to put in place additional legal documentation) if he intends to have ongoing parental involvement after the birth. It is a common misconception that known donors to single women always have their legal status excluded if they donate through a licensed clinic.

Where there is a clear intent that the donor will be known and treated as the child's father, both sides should be clear about the legal issues before going ahead. The decision as to whether the father is named on the birth certificate is significant as this will dictate how much decision-making power the father has in his child's upbringing. It is also important to think through the issue of financial responsibility and how this will be managed, as well as the intention for sharing care in practice both in the early months and in the longer term. In many cases, it is appropriate to put in place a donor or co-parenting agreement to cover these sorts of issues, to provide clarity and to help flush out any potential problems before they arise. An agreement does not bind the family court - since the parents cannot stop the court doing what it thinks is in a child's best interests - but it will be taken into account if a dispute does arise.

It is important to take care if the solo mum conceives while she is still legally married or in a civil partnership. Problems can arise for women who make the decision to start a family on their way out of a marriage or civil partnership, and are keen to get going as soon as possible before their divorce/dissolution is finalised. The law provides that any child artificially conceived by a married woman or one in a civil partnership (and this includes home insemination) will be treated as the legal child of her husband or civil partner. In most cases this is the opposite of what is intended, making it critical to take legal advice before conception.

Women are increasingly making reproductive choices independently, typically in their thirties and forties and often simply to avoid missing out on motherhood before it is too late. The decision is often one which has been made over a considerable period of time, with care, thought and courage. Such women have more complex issues to grapple with than many other fertility patients, both in their conception choices and their longer term parenting issues, and it is important for them to consider the options and the law carefully from the very start.

 

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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