Impregnating your mother-in-law.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 12 2008 7:44 AM

Knocked-Up Grandmas

Impregnating your mother-in-law.

Good news: Another guy got his mother-in-law pregnant.

No, not that way. It's a surrogate pregnancy. The guy supplied the sperm, his wife supplied the egg, and her mother supplied the womb.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


I'd better explain. The wife is on her second marriage. In her first marriage, she had two kids. Then she had a hysterectomy and a divorce. Then she married this guy. He wanted a kid. He had the sperm, she had the eggs. All they needed was a uterus.

Enter the mother-in-law.

No, not that kind of enter. It's IVF and surrogacy, except this time the surrogate is Grandma. Nobody in the triangle has to touch anybody else. Fertility doctors mix the eggs and sperm, then transfer the fertilized results to the uterus.

In this case, the results were triplets. Grandma's 56. Imagine giving birth to triplets at 56.

No, this isn't the first time a woman has carried her own grandkids. It isn't even the fourth. It isn't even the first case of triplets. Four years ago, a 55-year-old woman in Virginia did the same thing for her daughter, whose womb was diseased. Two years ago, a Japanese woman in her 50s bore a child this way. This year, another Japanese woman did it at age 61—the fourth such case at a single clinic in Japan. The latest birth-by-Grandma took place in Ohio. Reportedly, there are other cases; nobody seems to know how many.

Now, I like to think of myself as an open-minded guy. And I love my mother-in-law, really. How many guys can honestly say they love both their home-renovation contractor and their mother-in-law? I am truly blessed. Still, the thought of my mother-in-law carrying my child … well, let's just say it hadn't occurred to me.

But now, here it is. Motherhood is splintering. You can have a genetic mother, a gestational mother, an adoptive mother, and God knows what else. When one of your moms is Grandma, it's even more confusing.

Take the Japanese case from a couple of years ago. Japanese law treated the child's gestational mother—the genetic grandmother—as its legal mother. Therefore, the genetic mother had to adopt the child from her own mother. In the Virginia case, the genetic dad ended up telling reporters, "Mommy's doing fine. Not this mommy. Grandma mommy." Imagine looking at your mom and realizing that in a way, she's your sister. Imagine getting into an argument with your mother-in-law over the way you're raising your kids—religion, discipline, whatever—and realizing that in a way, she's their mother.

Icky, huh? But the splintering and the incest are different kinds of ick. In fact, the latter mitigates the former. If you banned women from bearing their own grandchildren, it's not as though you'd stop surrogacy. People will find a way to have kids, and it'll be done through a market—if necessary, a black market. When relations between the genetic parents and the surrogate break down, it'll be a mess.

When the surrogate is Grandma, the mess is less. Mother and daughter share a genetic bond to each other and to the child. They're much more likely to work things out and give the child a stable family environment.

Now, if you really want to get icky, try it the other way around: Grandpa impregnates his daughter-in-law. You can pretty well deduce what he's supplying. No daughter-in-law would do this, right? Sorry. A British couple arranged it last year after discovering that the husband was shooting blanks. According to the Guardian, doctors "offered to provide sperm from an anonymous donor, but the couple wanted to use a member of their own family."

Makes sense, doesn't it? Just like using Grandma. Except this time, Grandpa isn't just one of the biological dads. He's the only biological dad. In every biological sense, the kid's nominal dad is his brother, not his father.

I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to spending the holidays with my mother-in-law and the mother of my children. Not necessarily at the same time.


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