Skip to main content

How Does It Feel to Be the Biological Parent of Your Sister's Child?

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to print and digital magazine subscribers.
(Illustration: Michael Willer)

(Illustration: Michael Willer)

Imagine this: Woman A can’t get pregnant, so Woman B, her sister, donates her eggs. Then Woman B finds she can’t carry a child, so Woman A serves as her surrogate. The women’s kids are at once cousins and siblings. The true story told in this piece is a striking example of how assisted reproductive technology is upending former notions of family and parenting. We’re in the Space Age of reproductive technology, but we’re still in the Stone Age of trying to make emotional and ethical sense of it.

Rachel Rabkin Peachman's Pacific Standard essay is currently available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—and will be posted online on Monday, March 23. Until then, an excerpt:

Here is the full story: Several years ago, when Jodie was in her late 30s, she was having trouble getting pregnant. “I apparently don’t make eggs,” Jodie explained. Shannon was then in her late 20s and single. So Jodie asked her: Could you spare some of your eggs? “I was a bit surprised,” said Shannon. “But I would have given her a kidney if she’d needed one.”

Soon after, doctors created embryos from Shannon’s eggs and the sperm of Jodie’s husband, Paul. Jodie got pregnant on her first round of IVF, and, in April of 2002, she gave birth to her son, Josh (some names have been changed). The sisters moved on with their lives in their respective cities.

Several years after Josh’s birth, Shannon and her husband, Eric, began trying to start their own family. But as it turned out, Shannon’s body could not support a pregnancy. That’s when Jodie stepped in and said she “had a womb to rent,” as she put it: She wanted to take on the pregnancy. Shannon and Eric were hesitant to say yes, but Jodie wouldn’t have it any other way. “I owed her,” she said with a laugh.

So Jodie became a surrogate (specifically, a “gestational carrier,” someone who does not provide an egg), pregnant with twins. In the photo album of their birth is a picture of Jodie in the delivery room as Eric, her brother-in-law, cuts the umbilical cords—two snips that effectively severed Jodie’s maternal connection to the two girls she had carried to term and birthed. It was the moment Jodie became an aunt. “This,” Jodie’s husband, Paul, said, “is what family does for family.”

To read this story in print, subscribe to our bimonthly magazine, on newsstands throughout the month of March. Or you can get our March/April 2015 issue instantly on any of your digital devices.

For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine, where this piece originally appeared. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).