A custody battle in Florida between two lesbians could fuel the growing national debate over the definition of motherhood.
It also might force state lawmakers to reconsider a 19-year-old law regarding the rights of sperm and egg donors.
The women, now in their 30s and known in court papers only by their initials, were both law enforcement officers in Florida. One partner donated an egg that was fertilized and implanted in the other. That woman gave birth in 2004, nine years into their relationship.
However, the Brevard County couple separated two years later, and the birth mother eventually left Florida with the child without telling her former lover. The woman who donated the egg and calls herself the biological mother finally tracked them down in Australia with the help of a private detective.
Their fight over the now eight-year-old girl is before the Florida Supreme Court, which has not announced whether it will consider the case. A trial judge ruled for the birth mother and said the -biological mother has no parental rights under state law, adding that he hoped his decision would be overturned.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach obliged, siding with the biological mother and saying both women have parental rights.
At issue is the 1993 state law meant to regulate sperm and egg donation. Academics debate whether the constitutional right to procreate includes outside-the-body technologies used to conceive.
Also at issue are constitutional questions about gay people’s right to raise children and claim equal protection under the law. Another appellate court ruled Florida’s ban on gays being able to adopt unconstitutional in 2010.
The biological mother is not concerned about being a legal or social pioneer, her lawyer said. She just wants her child back in her life.
“She hasn’t seen her daughter in years, and it’s been terribly, terribly difficult for her,” said Robert Segal, a family law attorney in Melbourne.
The birth mother’s lawyer, Robert Wheelock of Orlando, did not respond to written questions sent by e-mail.
The battle over what defines motherhood is being played out on prime-time TV shows and in courtrooms across the country.
Lisa Miller, a Virginia woman who renounced her homosexuality, has been in hiding with her daughter since 2009 after a court ordered that her former partner, Janet Jenkins, be given custody.
The two entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2000. Miller’s own egg was artificially inseminated and she gave birth. The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately agreed with a Vermont judge’s custody decision; the case raised questions about one state’s duty to recognize same-sex relationship rights created by laws in another.
More recently, former US senator Julia Boseman, the first openly gay member of North Carolina’s legislature, is suing for joint custody of a two-year-old son born to a woman Boseman had called her spouse.
In the Florida case, the women agreed to use “reproductive medical assistance,” have a child and raise that child as a couple, court records show.
It is unknown why they later decided to separate, but “their separation does not dissolve the parental rights of either woman, nor does it dissolve the love and affection either has for the child,” the appellate decision said.
The birth mother cites the state’s law on sperm and egg donation, which says that donors “relinquish all maternal or paternal rights,” to argue that the biological mother was not the child’s parent.