For as long as Maria McLeod can remember, she has wanted to have a baby. Her journey to becoming a mom, however, was hardly straightforward. She and her same-sex partner faced difficulties that heterosexual couples don’t.
McLeod explains that the couple began trying to get pregnant in the spring of 2012. The plan was that she would carry the baby, while her partner’s brother, who is also queer, was willing to donate sperm. He felt strongly about doing things formally through a clinic in Toronto, where he lives.
“When he went to his first reproductive-health appointment, he was given a physical, and a [sperm] sample was taken, along with a pile of paperwork filled out,” McLeod tells the Straight. “We had agreed to split this cost between us, which, I think, was about $3,000 each. This is when we learned that because he is not my partner, his sperm would need to be quarantined for six months—it’s federal law—so that it could be tested and confirmed free of STIs.
“This was the first in a long list of barriers,” she says. “If he had been my husband—or we had pretended he was, which some people do—he could have donated that day and we could have tried right away. As it was, the sperm was frozen at the ReproMed sperm bank in Toronto, the only place you can bank sperm for known-donor conception with a chosen donor that is not your husband.”
When the ReproMed endocrinologist called to review the results, the couple got disappointing news: they were told the sperm had low motility and would be best for in vitro fertilization (IVF), a costly and lengthy process. Over the ensuing months, McLeod and her partner purchased sperm from an unknown donor and tried intrauterine insemination (IUI) eight times. None worked. Finally, in the summer of 2015, the two turned to IVF, and earlier this year they became parents to a healthy baby boy.
“Sometimes I call him my miracle baby,” McLeod says. “But although my own journey was a long and winding road, some of my queer friends got pregnant easily, at home, with little to no intervention from a clinic. Just because we are queer doesn’t mean we aren’t fertile. It’s just a bit more complicated and conscious for us, involving a variety of more steps than just sex. So when people say ‘Just relax; it will happen when you’re least thinking about it,’ it’s not very helpful, because I had to access the sperm and be very conscientious with each attempt to conceive.”
McLeod and her partner turned to Olive Fertility Centre for the IVF, as well as Acubalance Wellness Centre, which specializes in an integrated approach to supporting pregnancy and treating infertility, including acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine, and naturopathy. The two clinics work in collaboration to help people conceive.
Reproductive endocrinologist Al Yuzpe, cofounder and codirector of Olive Fertility Centre, says that accessing sperm can indeed be a challenge for female same-sex couples. LGBT community members face other circumstances that could delay conception; that’s why it’s important for them to plan ahead as much as possible.
“For example, if someone is going to have a gender reassignment, they’re going to need to be able to preserve their eggs or their sperm in advance,” Yuzpe explains in a phone interview. “There are situations where both people in a female same-sex couple would like to participate in the pregnancy. One provides the eggs, then, using donor sperm, an embryo is formed, and that can be carried by the other partner. Many patients do that, but once you start manipulating eggs and using IVF, the costs become an issue.…You need to consider the financial implications.”
Costs can run from approximately $1,000 for IUI per cycle to up to $14,000 for IVF. Men in same-sex relationships need to find a source of eggs and a woman to carry the pregnancy, both of which can also be time-consuming and expensive processes, while they need to decide who will provide the sperm.
“These are not impediments but things they must consider before making a final decision as to how they want to produce a family,” Yuzpe stresses. “We have seen many, many couples—same-sex couples, females and male; transgender couples—that have all been able to achieve a pregnancy.
I think what is most important is that we recognize the entire LGBT community and recognize their rights to have a family. We do everything we possibly can to help them achieve it.”
Olive has counselling services available, as does Acubalance, which provides natural treatments to help women reach peak fertility and men achieve optimal sperm production.
Acubalance founder Lorne Brown says acupuncture in men helps improve testicular function by regulating hormone and stress levels; in women, it improves uterine blood flow, balances hormones, and regulates menstrual cycles. The wellness centre also helps people achieve a healthy diet and lifestyle and manage stress to optimize their chances of conceiving—all aimed at “nourishing the soil before planting the seed”.
“We help people destress, because often when they’re in a fertility clinic where other people have subfertility, they often end up thinking something is wrong with them,” Brown says. “We do a lot of coaching and destressing. Health in the preconception period is important. A healthy baby comes from healthy egg and healthy sperm and healthy uterine environment.”
As a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine at Acubalance, Emilie Salomons says it’s vital that members of the LGBT community feel part of the broader discussion of fertility, something that is still all too often focused on male-female unions.
“When you go online, everything that has to do with fertility is all heterosexual-centric,” Salomons says on the line from the clinic. “Everyone assumes it’s going to be a man and a woman, and that adds another weight to the whole process and can bring up a lot of emotions. I know here our forms are gender-neutral and welcoming and inclusive. We want people to feel included.”