22 October 2015: Waiting for Harriette


Maggie Sutcliffe Photo: Rachel Tokley

“When Rachel and I got together, the issue of having kids came up occasionally. It would go like ‘Would you like to have kids?’, ‘One day. What about you?’, ‘One day, yeah’.”

Maggie Sutcliffe is sitting in her kitchen in the leafy Canberra suburb of Hackett, trying to recall exactly how the vague idea of becoming parents solidified into something more certain.

“We’d been together for just over two years. We were in a good space, and committed to being together. We were both getting older, which was a factor, and the timing seemed right.”

Maggie says she always thought she would one day carry a baby. “Rachel was less sure about that, and she is older than me, so once we decided to get things in motion, the decision for me to become pregnant seemed right and natural.”

She says it’s wrong to think that people in a same-sex relationship wouldn’t want children.

“My sexuality and my desire to have a child are two different things. After all, there are heterosexuals who don’t want to have children.

“If you want to make it happen you’ll make it happen.”

Maggie says she and her partner talked long and hard about raising a child with two mothers.

“We didn’t only talk about what it would be like as same-sex parents with a child, but what it would be like for the child as well.”

As well, they had the example of many friends is a same-sex relationship with children ranging in age from toddlers to 14 years-old. “And all those children are healthy, happy and well-adjusted. So in the end that aspect of the decision didn’t concern us greatly. Having said that, we realised there are going to be challenges. But there are always challenges having children.”

Having made the choice to start a family, Maggie and her partner then had to decide how to go about it.

“We figured we had three options. To ask someone we knew to be the donor, to organise a sperm donor online in Australia, or to go to a fertility clinic. In the end, we made the choice to go to the Canberra Fertility Centre, where we chose an anonymous donor from America because the availability of sperm from Australia is limited.”

Maggie says that although they did not know the donor’s name, they had information about his education, medical history, background and – as far as we could find out from the material at hand – what sort of a person he was.

“The whole process was kind of surreal, a mix of online shopping and online dating. At first we felt awkward about the whole picking-a-donor thing, but it had its humorous side.”

Initially they tried artificial insemination, but without success after five attempts.

“We then decided on IVF. Seven eggs were taken, six of which became viable. One three-day embryo was implanted, but that attempt failed as well. The embryos were grown to five-days, and one survived. That one was implanted.”

It was at this point that Maggie and her partner decided that if the last embryo didn’t work out, they would go on a long holiday to France and embark on a different adventure rather than having children.

“IVF is a very ‘medical’ way to have a baby. It was all a bit full-on.  But the end result of our own child would be worth all the medical intervention.”

As it turned out, it was the last embryo that did the trick.

“When we realised it had probably taken, we were hopeful without being carried away about it. We knew from past experience that disappointment was never far off, and it was hard to take. We went away for a short break to distract ourselves.

“The first real sign was one morning when I couldn’t stand the taste of coffee. I love coffee! It was hard not reading something into that.”

The first blood test was positive.

“To make sure, though, we needed a second blood test. All the waiting was nerve-wracking. But the second blood test confirmed I was pregnant. The embryo was 14 days old.”

She says it all became very real when she had the seven-week scan and a heartbeat was detected.

“We were very excited.

“We also made the decision we didn’t want to know the embryo’s sex, but at the 12-week scan the technician asked us if we wanted to know and we just said ‘Yes’. She said she thought it might be a girl, and that was confirmed at the 20-week scan.”

Except for the morning sickness, life returned to a kind of weird normality.

“We were no longer going through the whole medicalized fertility process of blood tests, insemination and waiting, waiting, waiting. We had time and space to ourselves. The second trimester was great, a breeze, but the whole thing still seemed slightly unreal.

“Then with the third trimester it all really hit home. This is actually happening! There is a small person inside me.”

Maggie says reaction to the news she was pregnant was overwhelmingly positive.

“Looking back on it now, from the initial decision through to choosing a donor and then going through AI and IVF, it’s all a bit of a blur. The pregnancy itself has overtaken everything that came before. Now even the pregnancy is taking no time at all. It’s been my focus, what my life has been about, for 37 weeks.”

When asked if she would go through the whole thing again, Maggie says they would like to have more than one child, but will have to wait and see how things play out first time around before making a decision.

“If we restart the process, I’ll be over 40, so that will make us think harder about it. And if we could we’d like to use the same donor again.”

She and her partner have already chosen the child’s name.

“For a while I was convinced it was going to be a boy, and we’d settled on the name Huon. But she is going to be called Harriette. Harrie for short. Or maybe just Harrie … ”

Maggie says they will learn to deal with things as they come.

“We’re in a loving same-sex relationship. We’re both going to be mothers. That does influence where we want to live, where we want Harrie to go to school, the community in which we want her to grow up. They are all factors that will help decide what we do in the future.

“We’re looking forward to Harrie being with us. We can’t wait!”

14 September 2015: Taking ‘the strangers case’

Thomas More

Sir Thomas More. Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1527.

Tragically, when it comes to human behaviour there is little new under the sun. Despite all the evidence that immigration and the settling of refugees is good for a country’s soul, not to mention its economy, many people give in to bigotry and fear and make victims of those who are already desperate and vulnerable.

In 1517, young male apprentices rioted against foreigners living in London. Ultimately, large numbers of the rioters were arrested, and though most were pardoned a handful were executed.

The riot started on the evening of 30 April and carried over to the early hours of the next day. The event has since been known as Evil May Day or Ill May Day.

One of those who attempted to forestall any violence was Thomas More, who confronted the rioters and urged them to return to their homes.

Two playwrights, Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, celebrated this act of courage in their play Sir Thomas More, written sometime in the early 1590s.

The play was revised by several writers, and it is now generally accepted that one of those was William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare rewrote Moore’s speech to the rioters when he implores them to take ‘the strangers case’, to imagine what it must be like to be a refugee facing at best a lack of compassion and at worst outright hostility.

“What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.”

In 2015 there are many people – and some countries – who do indeed take on ‘the strangers case’, and open their hearts and homes to those fleeing terror and persecution.

But not all of us, and almost none of us all of  the time.

[The extract is taken from the text put up at Project Gutenberg.]

04 September 2015: Neither one thing nor the other

P. myojinensis

P. myojinensis. The blue structure is the nucleus, the red structures the endosymbionts.

A remarkable creature discovered in the ocean southeast of Japan – that doesn’t quite seem to belong to any of the three known domains – may provide evidence of how complex multicellular life evolved on Earth.

In 2010, a scientific expedition to the Myojin Knoll, about 35 kilometres southeast of the Japanese island of Aogashima, collected biological samples from a hydrothermal vent more than 1,200 metres below the surface.

The samples were frozen and then embedded in epoxy resin; the resin was then prepared for study by being sliced into ultrathin sections.

That’s when the researchers discovered they had collected one truly remarkable specimen, a single-celled organism that lays somewhere between prokaryotes, organisms like bacteria and archaea, and eukaryotes, the basis of complex organisms such as fungi, plants and … well … us.

The main differences between prokaryotes and eukaryotes are that the former do not have a nucleus surrounded by a membrane, or any membrane-bound organelles such as mitochondria or chloroplasts.

As described in the journal Microscopy, the cell, dubbed Parakaryon myojinensis, was discovered on one of the bristles of a type of Polychaete called a scale worm. It was 10 micrometres long and three wide, much larger than most bacteria. Inside the cell the researchers discovered a nucleus with a membrane. As well, they discovered three endosymbionts, organisms that live symbiotically inside another, also surrounded by membranes. Obviously, then, the cell was not a prokaryote.

However, the nucleus of P. myojinensis was surrounded by a single membrane and consisted of DNA fibres, whereas a nucleus in a eukaryote cell has a double membrane and consists of chromosomes.

The endosymbionts also had only a single membrane. Mitochondria in eukaryotes, like the nucleus, have a double cell wall. As well, the endosymbionts closely resembled bacteria rather than mitochondria.

This last point is what makes the discovery of P. myojinensis so important.

There are two major theories about how eukaryotes evolved. The autogenesis theory proposes that a eukaryote’s structures developed from primitive prokaryotic features. The symbiogenesis theory – first properly described by Russian Konstantin Mereschkowski in 1910 and subsequently advanced by Lynn Margulis in 1967 – proposes that eukaryotes evolved from a symbiotic relationship after a bacteria was absorbed by larger achaean, eventually becoming an integral and working part of the cell.

P. myojinensis seems to be an organism that has incorporated endosymbionts into its structure but not yet developed the full range of eukaryotic functions.

As the authors of the paper suggest, “ … it may even be a conservative descendant of the transitional lineage between prokaryotes and eukaryotes.”

For a fuller description of the possible implications of the discovery, read this article on ABC online by British scientist Nick Lane, whose latest book The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?, is a rewarding and thought-provoking read.