When Sheena and Tiara Yates decided they wanted to have a second child, the lesbian couple sought out a sperm donor and drew up a contract in which the man agreed to give up his paternity rights _ a measure they believed would spare them a second custody battle with a donor.
Their child, conceived through artificial insemination at home, is now 1, and the couple is again locked in a custody dispute.
Under New Jersey law, a non-biological parent can only be considered the child's natural parent when the insemination process is carried out under the direct supervision of a physician.
While the couple did meet with a physician who performed an exam and prescribed prenatal vitamins, their attorney argues that requiring that artificial insemination be carried out only by a doctor puts lower-income people _ both gay and straight _ at a disadvantage, citing the high costs involved with fertility clinics and sperm banks.
``All we want is a family, and we can't have kids without an outside party,'' Sheena Yates, recently told The South Jersey Times, which first reported the case. ``It's a lot for us to have to deal with. It's not just hard on us, it's hard on the kids, too.''
Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, said the Yates' story is an example of the traditional way courts look at parenting not properly addressing the ways children are born using methods like artificial insemination.
``Our laws really need to catch up to reality,'' Sommer said. ``It's children who are getting hurt.''
Sommer said that judges don't always dig into the specifics of whether a doctor is directly involved in an artificial insemination procedure, but she said that biological fathers seeking to overturn earlier agreements often look for loopholes.
``There shouldn't be a sort of gotcha simply because a physician was not in the room,'' she said.
While the Yates' attorney, John Keating, hopes their case could change the status of reproductive rights for couples around New Jersey, a professor on bioethics and family law at Rutgers University in Camden said the larger problem is people not knowing the rule.
``It's pretty much long been the case that the way that you protect yourself when you use donor sperm is by going to a physician,'' said Kimberly Mutcherson. ``I don't see that changing any time soon. I think people and policy makers want there to be pretty clear rules. The problem is people don't know that's the rule.''
The suit marks the second time the Pennsville couple has had to deal with a donor who initially agreed to not seek parental rights but then changed their mind. They lost that first custody case and chose not to challenge it, and that donor now has visitation time with the couple's older child.
They are now appealing a ruling that awarded parental rights to the father of their younger child. The biological father is representing himself in the case and a phone number listed for him was out of service.
In their appeal, the couple argues that the precise location of the procedure should be irrelevant. They also note that while there was no legal recognition of their relationship when their first child was born, they have been in a civil union since 2011 and were married in May 2014.
``We don't want other couples to have to go through this,'' Keating said. ``They thought they were doing things the right way, they consulted doctors and drew up contracts for the donors. But as this case shows, you can still run into problems.''