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Twins test limits of British law

A gay British couple's plan to raise their US-born twins challenges

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 2000



LONDON

Barrie Drewitt and Tony Barlow say they never set out to be pioneers, only parents.

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But in what may prove to be a landmark legal case, the two men are engaged in a legal tug of war with British authorities that has embroiled the country in a debate over the changing nature of the family, reproductive rights, and gay parenting.

The couple, millionaire businessmen and partners for 11 years, hired an egg donor and another woman, Rosalind Bellamy, to act as a surrogate mother in the United States. Ms. Bellamy gave birth to Aspen, a boy, and Saffron, a girl, on Dec. 9.

But when Mr. Drewitt and Mr. Barlow - one of whom is the biological father of the twins - brought them home last month, immigration officials at London's Heathrow Airport declared the US-born babies were Americans and could not be considered citizens under the 1981 British Nationality Act.

According to a government spokesman, British law on homosexual couples using surrogate mothers is unclear. Britain, however, does not recognize gay couples as legal parents.

While the men consider their legal options, the children have been granted temporary one-month visas. The visas are renewable, but if an extension were to be rejected they might be required to leave the country.

Differing legal standards and ideas of what is in a child's best interest can pose special difficulties when international borders are involved - witness the current dispute between the US and Cuba over Elian Gonzalez, a six-year-old Cuban boy rescued at sea on Thanksgiving Day.

The arguments are further muddled as science continues to remove obstacles to couples who would otherwise be unable to have children. More and more gay pairs are exercising this option, at least in the US.

Popular singer Melissa Etheridge revealed this week that the two children born to her lesbian partner, Julie Cypher, and raised by the pair, were fathered biologically by veteran rock star David Crosby.

Government agencies in London, however, continue to play "pass the parcel" in the twins' case. Immigration officials referred Drewitt and Barlow to the Department of Health. But officials there said determining the twins' legal parents is not for them to decide. "These are uncharted waters. The matter may have to be tested in the courts," said a Health Department spokesman.

The case is attracting broad attention. Church leaders are weighing in, with some saying it raises fundamental ethical issues on family life and the welfare of children.

The government, child-welfare organizations, and church leaders anticipate further citizenship demands by gay and lesbian couples with surrogate offspring born outside the country. They see Aspen and Saffron as players in an important test case.

The twins were born in California, a state that permits homosexual parenting. In October, a Los Angeles court made legal history by ruling that Drewitt and Barlow would be the twins' "official parents" - they are listed as "Parent 1" and "Parent 2" on the children's birth certificates. Mark Watson, a spokesman for Stonewall, a London-based gay-rights group, says, "It must be best for the child if two people who are bringing up and involved in the parenting of that child are given legal responsibility for it."

But some church leaders claim the case exemplifies a trend toward sexual permissiveness that is both ethically wrong and has adverse effects on children. The Right Reverend Tom Butler, Anglican bishop of Southwark, south London, calls it "another example of the development of the designer child."

"We are producing a generation of children who are mixed up and insecure because they are confused about their identity," Bishop Butler says. "At the end of the day, it is the children who are the casualties."

British charities with an interest in child welfare, however, are leaning toward a more relaxed view. Last July in a major policy shift, the London-based Children's Society, which is sponsored by the Church of England, dropped its opposition to gays and lesbians as adoptive and foster parents. Ian Sparks, the charity's chief executive, says, "We are not going out to recruit gay and lesbian people, but we no longer wish to exclude any groups from consideration."

Richard Kirker, secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, says he was "thrilled" by the Children's Society's change of mind.

All the indications are that, by insisting on the twins' rights as British citizens, Drewitt and Barlow are entering a legal minefield.

One option reportedly being considered would be to ask the government to waive normal immigration rules and allow the twins to remain in Britain as legal dependents of the two men.

Another option might be to legally adopt what they consider to be their own children - something no court would have sanctioned only a few years ago.

Leading family-law judge Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss supports the adoption of children by gay couples. "Some time ago I was doubtful about the stability of children living in a family with two parents of the same sex," she says. "But over the years research has shown that for some children that is the best that is available to them.

"We should not close our minds to suitable families who are clearly not within the old-fashioned approach."

Drewitt says that if legal remedies in Britain fail, he and Barlow may have to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Britain has lost a string of human rights cases in Strasbourg lately, but litigation can take years. So the question arises: Where would the twins live while European judges mull over a decision on their status and fate?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society