Ashleigh and Bliss Coulter’s first child, Stetson, set a "surreal"precedent: He is reportedly the first baby to have been carried by both women in a same-sex couple.
As ABC News first reported, the unique pregnancy—accomplished using a procedure known as Effortless In Vitro Fertilization provided by the Center for Assisted Reproduction in Bedford, Texas—is “believed to have made medical history.”
According to background information on the procedure provided by CARE to The Daily Beast, Effortless IVF is a modified form of reciprocal IVF, in which one woman provides eggs to produce embryos that are then carried by another woman.
In this case, Bliss was the “egg source,” meaning that the eggs were harvested from her and inseminated using donor sperm. But then, as CARE noted, rather than incubating the eggs outside of the body, Bliss “carried the embryo development for five days” inside her vagina using a small medical device called an INVOcell capsule.
After that, the other mother completes the process: “Ashleigh returns for a frozen embryo transfer, carries, and delivers the pregnancy,” CARE explained, noting that Effortless IVF “allows both women to be an integral part of the pregnancy process.”
For the Coulters, the unique procedure fit their needs exactly: “Bliss wanted to have her own biological child but she didn’t want to carry,” Ashleigh told The Daily Beast. “I always wanted to have a baby and wanted to be pregnant and carry.”
The Coulters didn’t actually realize how monumental a global medical precedent they had set, Ashleigh told The Daily Beast, until after making a joke about how “surreal” it all was: “Wow, we both got to carry the baby.”
Now that Stetson is five months old, the family’s story has started to draw international media attention—everywhere from People magazine to newspapers in Hong Kong—and Ashleigh says that she is grateful for the opportunity to share their experience with the world.
“We were just so excited to have a son and so grateful that this doctor created this process for us,” Ashleigh told The Daily Beast. “We thank God every single day.”
That doctor is Kathleen Doody, a fertility specialist who goes by “Dr. Kathy” and co-founded CARE with husband and fellow reproductive endocrinologist Kevin Doody. In a phone call with The Daily Beast on Monday, Dr. Doody gushed about the Coulters, calling them “the cutest, sweetest couple.”
Dr. Doody said that she was aware of —and thrilled by—the precedent-setting nature of the pregnancy, having used the INVOcell device for “several years” before getting the opportunity to use it in this way for the Coulters: “To be able to extend it to same-sex couples in this setting, where they both are carrying the pregnancy, they both are actively participating in their baby’s development—I found to be exciting.”
Reciprocal IVF has long been used by lesbian couples with partners who both want to play a biological role in a pregnancy, with one partner providing eggs and the other carrying.
The Effortless approach for same-sex couples, Doody explained, allows for an added layer of mutual involvement because the harvested eggs are actually fertilized inside of one mother—in this case, Bliss—before resulting embryos are carried by the other mother—in this case, Ashleigh.
“I think the twist—so to speak—with the Effortless approach is that it allows that bonding early on,” explained Doody, noting that, “I think it opens up an exciting option for our same-sex couples.”
The small INVOcell device in which Bliss carried out the embryo development, as the manufacturer’s website notes, is solid but “gas permeable,” which allows for the incubation to take place.
The device is inserted into the vagina because, as the website notes, “incubation inside the vaginal environment provides the optimal ‘natural’ conditions (gas and temperature) for proper embryo development.”
The device itself has helped to produce “several hundred babies” since it was cleared by the FDA in 2015, the manufacturer says—but this is the first known instance of it being used to allow both women in a same-sex couple to carry the same child.
Although there are many ways for same-sex couples who wish to have children to fulfill that dream—ranging from adoption to artificial insemination to surrogate pregnancy to assisted reproductive technologies like IVF—Doody knows that, for some women, the ability to carry the same child will be personally meaningful. That was certainly the case for the Coulters.
“It was so special to use because we ended up both getting to carry and we wouldn’t change it for the world,” Ashleigh told The Daily Beast.
Doody also told The Daily Beast that, since the Coulters’ story went viral, CARE has already been receiving a flood of requests for more information about the procedure: “We’ve had a lot coming through on our website and on our phones—and today’s my day off! I’ve been up here all day talking to people on the phone.”
For the Coulters—who are currently busy raising their baby boy and posting adorable, season-appropriate photos of him in a pumpkin patch to Facebook—the entire story is a lesson that LGBT couples shouldn’t be afraid to ask their doctor questions.
“I would say to all the same-sex couples that anything is possible,” Ashleigh told The Daily Beast. “Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor questions. We asked our doctor if there was a way I could carry Bliss’ baby and this is what she came up with. We would have never known if we didn’t ask.”