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VOICE 1: You know what your most popular nipple is?
VOICE 2: Probably one of these two right here. People like the small perky ones.
VOICE 1: Perky One and Perky Two.
MIKE FINNERTY: The burgeoning field of sex robotics. Some of them may be no more controversial than a sex toy, with therapeutic opportunities for people in need of affection. But what about the Frigid Farrah setting designed to resist sexual advances? What behaviour is that likely to encourage when interacting with real women? It's time we talked about the ethics of sex robots. That's coming right up. Also today, when a friend and colleague—not a lover—wants to become the legal second mother of a child.
VOICE 1: One, I thought it would be just an amazing life experience to see someone born.
VOICE 2: But I don't think either of us thought that she was going to become as involved and as committed as she is.
MF: The fight for legal recognition in Ontario for Elaan’s two mamas. I'm Mike Finnerty. Welcome to the summer edition of The Current.Back To Top »
Designing robots for sex a 'dehumanizing practice': robot ethicist
Guests: Aimee van Wynsberghe, Julie Carpenter
My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and well-being. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.
MF: Say hello to Harmony—the world's first artificial intelligence sex robot. She says she wants to be the girl of your dreams. Dream or nightmare, what's for sure is she's a reality, with more pleasure-bots like her on the way. A new report this week from the Foundation for Responsible Robotics takes a dispassionate look at the burgeoning sex tech field. It finds some good, some bad, but most of all it makes clear that the time has come to think through the ethics of sex with robots. That's what we're doing now. And in case it wasn't clear already, there will be some frank talk about sex and sexuality. Aimee van Wynsberghe is an assistant professor at the Technical University of Delft. She is co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. She's in the Netherlands in The Hague. Amy, hello.
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Hi.
MF: First of all, what's the state of the technology now? How lifelike are they?
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Right. Well, really we should look to sex dolls as sort of the precursor to robots and the dolls are really quite lifelike. You can also choose different characteristics that you want. So if you want a certain size of breasts or if you want a certain hair colour or pubic hair shape, you get to make all of these choices. And now the sex robots are another variation of the dolls and they have more functional capabilities. So you can't get the robots with as many specific details as you can get the dolls right now because you have to incorporate all of this technology. But you can still make different choices, like whether or not you want elf ears or regular ears and so on.
MF: But how interactive are they, the robots?
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Yeah, they would be as interactive as your typical AI system. So it doesn't feel as intuitive as we might think it does and they have a preprogrammed set of questions and responses that they can ask. So it's not at the point right now where we are fooled into believing that this device has emotions or anything, but that is sort of the incentive or where the tech companies want to go.
MF: And are they for instance, as smart as Siri, that sort of thing?
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: I don't think we can say that they’re as smart as Siri just yet because also these programs have a lot more functionalities to take into consideration. They're embodied as well. So they need to think about positioning of hands and whatnot. But the idea of incorporating a model of Siris into the robot would definitely be something that companies are thinking of.
MF: Who are they for?
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: So this is really an interesting question or issue to address because they’re for a broad range and spectrum of individuals, right? In the consultation report that the Foundation for Responsible Robotics just released, we were trying to address both the good and the bad and to show just how difficult it is to have this conversation. So you can think about these robots as a therapeutic tool. You can think about them as being used for individuals who have suffered a traumatic experience, who have been the victims of rape and who don't feel comfortable having sexual contact with humans at the moment. And this could be something to allow them to regain confidence to practice, if you will, so that they feel comfortable. This could be for men who suffer from erectile dysfunction or premature ejaculation, again as a way of practicing and overcoming the limitations that they might be experiencing. You could imagine this technology for disabled persons who don't interact with humans. There's very few foundations that offer sex therapists or sexual helpers to individuals with disabilities. And so this could be another complement to that kind of practice. And the same goes for elderly persons maybe living in their homes or living in a retirement complex. This again could be a nice compliment to allowing them to fulfill sexual gratification and pleasures that we consider to be integral to a conception of the good life.
MF: That there are currently, aren't there bordellos with sex toys in some cities?
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Right. So in Japan, that's where we had the first sex doll bordello and it was so lucrative that with after four months, the founders already had made back their initial investment. And then the next bordello opened up in Barcelona, again sex dolls. So when we can see the popularity or at least you know the interest in this kind of bordello, you might hint at the idea that the same kind of bordello but just using a more sophisticated doll, a sex robot, could also be acceptable. And you know in those instances, imagine, you could think about people who feel uncomfortable going to a prostitute because they're putting another human being in that position and it could be an uncomfortable situation. The bordello with a doll or a robot could be a nice solution to that discomfort.
MF: Are they representations of women mostly or entirely, the robots?
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Mostly. Mostly. There are male sex dolls that have, I guess, kind of a robotic function in that the penis goes from flaccid to erect, which you could consider a robotic function or an automated function. But mostly really, to be fair, these are sexual personification of women. And right now because of the limited amount of interest in these toys, it's much more of a pornographic representation of women. So you know, a certain breast size and certain hair length and very made-up. The hope could be that if we can show studies for different uses for these robots and that industry could respond, perhaps we could broaden the design of these robots so that we include robots that have a more realistic view, that maybe have a little bit of cellulite on their body or that maybe have space in the belly that makes it look like they've had a child or something. So the questions are still out there. Again, this was a reason why we put this consultation document out. We have the technology that's started and now it's time that we engage the general public and the policymakers to decide where do we want this technology to go both in terms of design and implementation?
MF: One of the robot models has settings and I referred to one of them called Frigid Farrah, which resists advances. What's the point of that?
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Well, so this draws in actually a bunch of different themes. This is for the individuals that want it to be a struggle, right, to have sexual gratification or intercourse with another person. So this then relates to the question of could we minimize human trafficking? Could we minimize rape? Could we minimize sexual acts of this kind if we had a robot that could take the place of humans in these situations? And now this is a very difficult question because it's really an empirical question. You would have to definitively show that by having the robot, you actually saw a decrease in these other instances. And really if you think about the psychology behind this, would a robot be able to provide the same gratification when you want to have this domination and power and control? Or will it not be good enough and we will still see the instances of human trafficking and of rape?
MF: There's a case before the courts currently in Newfoundland to do with a sex doll that is a depiction of a child or an adolescent.
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Yeah. Yeah. So this is another really interesting facet to the idea of sex robots in general, right? There's a group of individuals that are putting forward the idea that perhaps if we had these kinds of dolls that were childlike in resemblance, they could be used by pedophiles to experience sexual gratification and then they no longer need it to harm or to abuse other children. So it's an interesting question that's been, or idea that's been put on the table. Now again, we come back to this idea of how do we prove this? What will be our control group to show that the pedophiles that have this doll versus the pedophiles that don't have the doll are less likely to harm children? Is there some ethics committee that's going to approve this kind of research? It's very, very ethically problematic research. And then another part of this discussion is that you also have to consider the work done by other psychologists who show that there's something called a reinforcing effect, that because you have this doll, it could intensify. It could make it more problematic for the pedophile that they need the real thing, that it doesn't sort of—quench the thirst. Sorry, that was the phrase I was looking for.
MF: Aimee, what are governments doing so far? Have they started to talk about regulation or are they regulating?
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Yeah. So actually this is a really great question that you put forward because Canada is in a position right now where they have to make a decision about this. But the UK at the end of June did make a definitive decision. So they had a man who had ordered one such childlike sex doll from Japan and he has been charged and put in jail for two years and eight months. So the UK has taken a stand against this kind of material as a pornographic representation as child pornography. It was also found that in his home he had other different pornographic items, child pornography items, so it was the entire case. And Canada is right now deciding on whether or not this will be considered child pornography. It's important to really think about this, that the definition of child pornography in Canada refers to whether or not a child has been harmed in the production of the material that you're talking about. And if Canada decides that no, this will not be child pornography, Canada also needs to make a statement and a decision about whether or not this is the kind of thing that will be allowed into the country, about whether or not this is a kind of practice that will be permitted and these are very important questions that the public needs to be a part of as well.
MF: Aimee, thanks very much for speaking to us.
AIMEE VAN WYNSBERGHE: Thank you for having me.
MF: Aimee van Wynsberghe, who is a Canadian living and working abroad. She's co-director of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics and we reached her in the Netherlands. She was in The Hague. So as the technology behind sex robots is undeniably advancing, there are those who say just because we can doesn't mean we should. Kathleen Richardson—she's a senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University in Leicester in England. And she was so concerned about the influence of sexual robotics on human intimacy and gender inequality that she co-founded a group called Campaign Against Sex Robots. She believes there is a fundamental separation between man and machine that removes the possibility for an authentic relationship between the two.
I need to tell you something very important about sex robots. It's not possible for them to be sex robots. Sex is part of the body and the body is part of the person. You can’t extract sex from the person. And therefore, because the body is part of the person and the living creature’s experience—the real experience of being human-you cannot actually have a sex robot. The more accurate term for these kinds of entities would be mechanical dolls or even porn bots. You can have love without sex. You can have sex without love. But you cannot have love and sex outside of personhood.
MF: Kathleen Richardson from De Montfort University in Leicester. She is the co-founder of the group Campaign Against Sex Robots. Let's hash through some of the ethics here that have been raised with Julie Carpenter who studies human robot interaction. She's a research fellow at the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University and we've reached her this morning in Portland, Oregon. Julie, hello.
JULIE CARPENTER: Hi, good morning.
MF: What do you think of that clip you just heard from Kathleen Richardson? Do you think that we are normalizing the sex robots?
JULIE CARPENTER: That was a really interesting statement by Kathleen. She made some—you know, that's her opinion. She made some sweeping generalizations regarding her opinion that she's very passionate about. Are we normalizing sex robots? I think actually we're far from culturally normalizing sex robots and you can see that in that type of pushback from Kathleen and other folks who have raised some very legitimate ethical concerns.
MF: Can I put one more to you from Katherine Richardson? Have a listen.
JULIE CARPENTER: Sure.
So do sex robots contribute to developing empathy or interrupt it? I want to say here today that it interrupts the development of our empathy. It's part of an elaboration, part of a new kind of technological elaboration that rests on a very dehumanizing practice—where people are treated as sex objects, where people's bodies are exchanged around the world.
MF: What's your view on that—that sex robots fundamentally are dehumanizing?
JULIE CARPENTER: Yeah. Again, that's a really interesting statement that Kathleen’s made and I understand her concern. It’s similar to concerns we've seen raised with other technologies. The one that comes to mind—and I think it was even in the report that we've been talking about—are video game violence or depictions of sexualization in video games and whether or not people will transfer their interactions from a video game into real life. There’s sort of that similar concern about—we've seen before with other technologies. Will interacting with a sex robot somehow dehumanize our interactions with other humans? And I think that humans are really very nuanced. We understand the difference between artificial things and that our interactions may have an appropriate place in one aspect of our life and not in another. We sort of code switch culturally all the time. How I talk to a partner at home is not how I'm going to speak to somebody at work. How I interact with somebody intimately or sexually is not necessarily something that you carry over into public. So I think that to make that assumption about human interaction with other humans based on a technology that hasn't even really come into its own yet. It’s sort of early in the game to make that call.
MF: But I mean you made the comparison with video games, but these are so lifelike.
JULIE CARPENTER: Right.
MF: They’re going to be the actual size and shape of a sexualized woman. I mean that surely is a step beyond, no?
JULIE CARPENTER: No, exactly. And that's part of my critique of that argument. There's a similarity in the argument, but not in the actual medium. And how we interact with video games is extremely different than how we interact with something that's an embodied artificial intelligence. For example, a robot that has the ability to move in a space and to interact with us physically. We know that. We understand that. So yes, there are differences. However, I have not seen a body of research—anyone's research in human robot interaction yet that can demonstrate the causation between how we interact or correlation between how we interact with robots in any scenario, to how we interact with people or animals or other things in our lives.
MF: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
JULIE CARPENTER: Oh yes. Yeah.
MF: So what's your view on whether this leads to further objectification of women, sets feminism back?
JULIE CARPENTER: I think that the current representations of—and I'll use the term sex robots—and I think you’ve heard that we're all sort of struggling with even that term right now because they're really sort of low fidelity. They're not super advanced. You might think you have a mental picture of what these robots are based on science fiction narratives that you've heard or read, but they're really not very advanced right now. But they are sort of this ultra-hyper-feminized, you know playboy type, a certain very limited creative ideal of someone or a group of people's version of what might be attractive. And I find it problematic. However, people's subjective taste and their sexual fantasies run the gamut. Some people will enjoy that. Other people will look for other versions of sex robots. I think that as a medium, robotics can really go in a lot of directions. So they don't have to always be in that niche. We have the ability to change that. Robots don't just spontaneously appear. We create them. [laughs] We design them. We develop them. So we have the power to sort of change that representation.
MF: I mean we already have porn, lots of porn. Are they really worse than porn, a sex robot?
JULIE CARPENTER: I’m not sure. I’m not sure the comparison, if it would be worse than porn. In what sense?
MF: Well, in that you know, porn is an objectification of women. Porn does show all sorts of things that might encourage behaviours. In fact, there are some studies that indicate that they are encouraging behaviours now that there's so much of it out there with younger people, for instance.
JULIE CARPENTER: Right. So again, it's two different points there. One is that's a sweeping generalization of all pornography. Not all pornography is like that. Yes, a large part of pornography is like that. It also doesn't have to be like that. But yes, that's true. And then again back to the video game argument, even though it seems like a good idea to make that parallel argument, again, porn and how we interact with porn [chuckles] is not the same as how we interact with robots. That much we know.
MF: Does it need to be regulated?
JULIE CARPENTER: I think for the reasons that I heard you discuss earlier and some of the things that Kathleen brought up and everything, I think for sure that we need to develop policies and legislation. I mean we are humans. We are in charge of the design and the creation and the ethics. And as a society, we self-regulate. We decide what's normal and what's acceptable and what isn't acceptable. And so policy making is part of that. Definitely.
MF: And so for instance, we’ll come back to the example of Frigid Farrah. Is that one that concerns you?
JULIE CARPENTER: It concerns me in the same way it’s concerned other people, in that it's a gamification of—it's sort of turning the idea of sex into a game in a certain way.
MF: It does happen between—consenting adults sometimes have those sorts of games.
JULIE CARPENTER: Right.
MF: If they both consent, that’s okay.
JULIE CARPENTER: Exactly. And that's the thing. In this case, one of the very things that may make robots or sexualized robots appealing to people is that there is no judgment. There is no need for a long term emotional intimacy if they don't want it. There is no need for any of that. They don't need to justify their sexual preferences to this thing anymore than you would have to justify your sexual preferences to any other sex toy.
MF: But—just briefly because we only have a few seconds left.
JULIE CARPENTER: Sure.
MF: But on the child side, is there any controversy there or does this really need to be acted on?
JULIE CARPENTER: Oh no. Yeah. I think we can all agree that ethically there's concerns. I think that there are valid places for robotics in therapeutic practice. I advocate for human therapists in the loop, for any conceivable future because the AI that's used in robots just is not that smart, does not understand the human experience, cannot provide guidance and therapy or advocate for a human patient. Yeah.
MF: So you would agree something needs to be done on that front.
JULIE CARPENTER: Oh yes. I don't think that sexualized, that robots with sexual functionality that resemble children should be available on a wide market.
MF: Julie Carpenter and she was in Portland in Oregon. This is The Current.Back To Top »
ENCORE | How two friends fought to be legal 'co-mommas' to a 7-year-old boy — and won
Guests: Julie Ireton, Lynda Collins, Natasha Bakht
MF: Hello. I’m Mike Finnerty. You’re listening to the summer edition of The Current.
MF: Lynda Collins and Natasha Bakht are best friends, colleagues and neighbours. They’re also co-parents—mothers to a seven-year-old boy named Elaan who is Natasha’s biological son. Elaan was born with severe disabilities and Lynda and Natasha share all the parental responsibilities that keep him healthy and happy. It is a remarkable relationship, even more so because the two women are not and have never been lovers—a fact that became a problem under Ontario law when the friends decided they wanted Lynda also to be recognized as Elaan’s legal mother. So they took their case to court, and in the process questioned the definition of what is a family and who can be parents. CBC’s Julie Ireton brought us their story in her documentary, Elaan’s Two Mommas. Here’s an encore presentation.
JULIE IRETON: Lynda Collins describes it as one of the best days of her life.
LYNDA COLLINS: It was one of the best days of my life. It was incredible.
JULIE IRETON: That day, she went to the hospital as a birth coach to help her friend.
LYNDA COLLINS: So I was lucky enough to be the first person to hold him. It was a really surprising kind of tidal wave of love really that hit me.
JULIE IRETON: Lynda sits in her funky, loft-style condo in Ottawa's ByWard Market. This 42 year old has her slippered feet tucked up underneath her, a law book open on her lap. This is her solitary space—fit for a single, urban professional—complete with the hip furniture and unique art. It's where she relaxes, sleeps. But sometimes she has company. Over by the window sits a chair with snaps and straps, built to accommodate a little boy with profound disabilities. The boy's bedroom is in the apartment directly below.
JULIE IRETON: That's actually where Lynda spends most of her time. It's where she's heading now. Lynda moved into this building to be closer to Elaan and to help her friend Natasha. Seven-year-old Elaan lies on a big, blue gym mat with his physiotherapist. He has short brown hair and big brown eyes with long lashes. He wears the features of his biological mom Natasha's South Asian family. He smiles a lot. It's a typical, toothless seven year old's smile. Elaan's therapist stretches his legs and massages his feet. His breathing is awkward, but it’s normal for him. Lynda joins Elaan's other momma at the kitchen counter. Natasha Bakht is 44. She's petite and fit—a South Asian contemporary dancer—that is, in her spare time. The women are eager to tell me their story. Natasha grabs a small album they recently prepared for the court.
NATASHA BAKHT: This is actually a little photo book that Lynda put together. So this is Elaan the day he was born. I think. Right? But Lynda was there literally from the moment of his birth.
LYNDA COLLINS: Yeah. So Elaan's birth came as a surprise to me.
JULIE IRETON: So did the relationship that has ensued. Lynda and Natasha, both lawyers, started out as colleagues at the University of Ottawa law school where they're both profs. This is Lynda.
LYNDA COLLINS: I’m an environmental laywer. So I teach toxic torts like Erin Brockovich and tort law.
NATASHA BAKHT: I teach family law and criminal law, but my research interests are in religious freedom and women's equality.
JULIE IRETON: They're obviously close. In some ways they're like an old married couple, finishing each other's sentences. It's not a relationship of romance or intimacy. But Natasha says Lynda is her person.
NATASHA BAKHT: Who I turn for any kind of problems. I have a partner in this journey. You know, the joys are happier and I feel much more supported through the more difficult times.
JULIE IRETON: This shared path started several years ago, after Natasha decided to have a baby.
[Sound: Phone ringing]
NATASHA BAKHT: People were having children with anonymous donor sperm and I did get pregnant on my second try. She said well, you're going to need a birth coach. Thought about it and I thought yes. You know, makes sense. She's a friend. She’s a good friend. So we decided to do, what are they called?
LYNDA COLLINS: Prenatal.
NATASHA BAKHT: Prenatal classes together.
LYNDA COLLINS: One, I thought it would be just an amazing life experience, to see someone born.
NATASHA BAKHT: But I don't think either of us thought that she was going to become as involved and as committed as she is.
LYNDA COLLINS: There was some panic certainly because Elaan was in distress in utero and it was an emergency C-section.
NATASHA BAKHT: So she was with me right from the beginning and she even stayed in the hospital, wheeling me around to the neonatal intensive care unit to see Elaan. And one of the best things about it is being able to look back at old photos and recall old memories and I love that I can do that with her.
NATASHA BAKHT: So these are photos, as you can see, of Elaan when he was like a tiny, tiny little munchkin, sitting in Lynda's lap.
LYNDA COLLINS: He was so tiny.
JULIE IRETON: What was he born at? What was his weight at birth?
NATASHA BAKHT: Four pounds, 13 ounces.
JULIE IRETON: Was he early?
NATASHA BAKHT: He actually wasn’t early. I had a true knot in the umbilical cord. They suspect that it was the knot in the umbilical cord that was having him lose oxygen and probably not getting as much nutrients.
LYNDA COLLINS: So we were in hospital in total about four days and you know I would say that love just kind of grew more and more as we were caring for him.
JULIE IRETON: Elaan's breathing is strained and sometimes he gags, throwing us all off a little.
NATASHA BAKHT: You okay over there?
JULIE IRETON: Natasha says it was months after she gave birth that they realized the impact of that so-called "true knot" in the umbilical cord.
NATASHA BAKHT: So I certainly left the hospital thinking we had a healthy child. But it was all very subtle and maybe it was also just all of the emotions at the time that I didn't register that. And about six months into his life, he had a lot of cerebral irritability which was sort of manifesting itself as a lot of crying. I did begin to notice some small repetitive eye movements, with the help of Lynda and Lynda's mom who's a physician, recognized that as seizures.
LYNDA COLLINS: He wasn't holding his head up. And at six months, babies are holding their heads up.
NATASHA BAKHT: Once we realized there were seizures, that started a whole process of tests that then revealed there was probably a brain injury.
LYNDA COLLINS: Then he underwent an MRI and we went to see a neurologist in Toronto who diagnosed him with what's called periventricular leukomalacia, which is basically the death of portions of the brain. He described it to us as being like a Swiss cheese brain. At that point he said, you know, you're looking at very significant disabilities going forward.
JULIE IRETON: For Natasha, the news was crushing. It’s Lynda who's able to describe what happened next.
LYNDA COLLINS: You know, I remember as we left that neurologist appointment she said to me, what kind of life is he going to have? And I said he's going to have a wonderful life. We're going to make sure of that. You know?
JULIE IRETON: Tears flow easily and quickly down Natasha's cheeks. There are no words. I witness the yin and yang of a healthy partnership.
NATASHA BAKHT: Yeah. Lynda is insistently positive. And I mean it's just such a godsend, you know. Certainly I didn't expect to have a child with disabilities and it just changes what you think your path with respect to motherhood is going to be. It's incredibly wonderful. You know, I wouldn't change a thing. But I needed Lynda to remind me of that and she did, you know over and over again. We just make a very good team. We're real partners in parenting.
NATASHA BAKHT: What’s up?
JULIE IRETON: What's his respiratory issues?
LYNDA COLLINS: He breathes with what's called a strider, which is the name they give to a sound on the in-breath. And that's because of just an extra flap of tissue in his throat.
JULIE IRETON: This also affects his ability to eat by mouth. Over at the kitchen counter, Natasha fills a syringe with Elaan's liquid meal. He sits quietly, strapped into his chair. Lynda rests her hand on his arm.
LYNDA COLLINS: Deep breath.
JULIE IRETON: Natasha lifts up his plaid shirt, exposing his torso and a little capped tube that leads to his stomach. She empties the syringe into the tube—a quick process they're all used to.
NATASHA BAKHT: Okay, one second. I’m going to get you half a syringe more.
NATASHA BAKHT: Good burp.
LYNDA COLLINS: Good boy. Okay. We’re going to do more music. We are going to do more music.
NATASHA BAKHT: Do you want to do more music?
JULIE IRETON: Lynda sings to relax him.
[Sound: Guitar and singing a nursery rhyme]
JULIE IRETON: Elaan has been tube-fed since he was two.
LYNDA COLLINS: They suspect he was aspirating the food into his lungs and so he was really terrified of eating and it was really hard on him, really traumatizing for him.
JULIE IRETON: Figuring out what's wrong with Elaan can be difficult. He has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal.
LYNDA COLLINS: He has what's called spastic quadriplegia which basically means he doesn't have independent, fully functional use of any of his limbs. He does have epilepsy. We've been fortunate that it's been well-controlled. He did have a life-threatening seizure last fall that lasted two and a half hours and he has chronic gastric reflux, so he throws up quite a bit. I think pretty much every day he'll throw up at least once. So he's visually impaired.
[Sound: Lynda Collins and Natasha Bakht singing to Elaan]
LYNDA COLLINS: He does have some sight. It's hard to know how much since we’re not able to talk about it.
JULIE IRETON: When it comes to his cognitive abilities, doctors believe Elaan understands well, likely close to an average seven year old. He goes to a specialized school where he's being taught in both English and French. His birth mom Natasha speaks to him in Urdu.
[Sound: Natasha Bakht speaking to Elaan in Urdu]
LYNDA COLLINS: In a society that really fears disability, when we enumerate the disabilities the way we did, that might sound to some people very grim. But Elaan is one of the happiest people I've ever met, and you know, Natasha would be the second happiest. It's really a lot of fun to share my life with them.
NATASHA BAKHT: Show me how you use a puzzle.
JULIE IRETON: His eyes brighten up when his moms bring out the sound puzzle. He carefully picks up each piece, reacting to the music.
[Sound: Heavy breathing]
LYNDA COLLINS: Oh, you got the guitar. The best instrument.
JULIE IRETON: A few years after Elaan was born, Lynda started thinking about having a child of her own. At the time, she was helping Natasha, but there was no formal relationship.
LYNDA COLLINS: I got to an age in my late thirties where I was thinking about whether to have kids and one of the things I contemplated was adoption. And I suddenly had this feeling like why am I adopting a stranger when I have Elaan? So after thinking it through, I realized that's the child I want to adopt. And I wasn't sure how Natasha would feel about it, so I came to her very gently, like no pressure and was very grateful for what we had. But would she consider that? And she thought about it for about two minutes.
NATASHA BAKHT: It's certainly not what I imagined. I thought I was going to be a single mother by choice. But I didn’t have a sense of the joy that it would bring to have another parent involved.
Can we have the tuba?
[Sound: Sound puzzle]
Oh, you got the tuba.
JULIE IRETON: Lynda sold her house and moved into the same condo building as Natasha and Elaan.
NATASHA BAKHT: We divide up parenting duties, so I'm sort of responsible for the mornings and getting Elaan off to school and after Elaan's caregiver goes home, we spend all of our evenings together. And then Lynda's responsible for all of the kind of nighttime duties, just before bed. So he's got a whole host of things that need done, several medications that need to be given. He has to have his meal. And then at around eight-thirty, Lynda leaves us and I put Elaan to sleep and she's back down here in the morning saying good morning at seven o’clock.
JULIE IRETON: Lynda took on a huge commitment and a responsibility she had no obligation to take on.
NATASHA BAKHT: She's often pulling out the guitar and singing for him to entertain him.
[Sound: Guitar playing]
LYNDA COLLINS: I mean the thing is by the time I made the decision to adopt him, I was already past the point of no return in terms of what he meant to me. And we were already living as a family.
[Sound: Guitar playing]
[Singing] My son is a teacher. He has shown us what life is for. And looking into his brilliant brown eyes, I chose him to be my own.
LYNDA COLLINS: It's true that I didn't have to take this on, but for me it was just something that I wanted badly—to be a mother and to be his mother. You know a lot of times when people see a child with complex disabilities, there's an assumption that it's maybe a sad life. But our life is actually very joyful and there's a lot of laughter and a lot of fun.
[Sound: Guitar playing]
[Singing] Because I could rule over millions and not change a thing. I could fall. I could fall in love. I could fall and change everything.
JULIE IRETON: So they decided to make it legal.
NATASHA BAKHT: We are legal people. [laughs]
JULIE IRETON: It was fine for Lynda to say she was Elaan's co-momma. But they wanted it to be true under the law.
NATASHA BAKHT: You just don’t know what’s going to happen to you as a parent and Elaan has medical decisions that need to be made that cannot be made by anybody but me at this point. It was comforting to me to know that he had another parent who is able to financially contribute, not just able, but legally required to. I guess about two years ago?
LYNDA COLLINS: Two years ago we started preparing the application.
NATASHA BAKHT: But once we got in touch with my good friend, Marta Siemiarczuk—
JULIE IRETON: She’s a family lawyer.
MARTA SIEMIARCZUK: Yes. I’m Marta Siemiarczuk. It was funny actually, because I had gone to law school with Natasha and I knew about Elaan, I knew about her and Lynda. But my first question to them was why not adoption? And it didn’t even occur to me that they weren't a couple. That they weren’t in a conjugal relationship.
JULIE IRETON: As Marta explains it, Lynda and Natasha couldn't legally adopt because they aren't sexual partners. The other option was to launch a charter challenge.
MARTA SIEMIARCZUK: Mounting a charter or constitutional challenge is a long process. It can be very trying and it can be very expensive. When you're in a situation where you have a child that has such high needs, it can be very prohibitive.
LYNDA COLLINS: So what we ultimately relied on was actually this ancient, unwritten jurisdiction of the court that goes back into the myths of time.
MARTA SIEMIARCZUK: So our first approach was to proceed with a declaration of parentage in the hopes that the court would allow that to happen, despite the lack of them being in a conjugal relationship.
JULIE IRETON: Affidavits were collected from Lynda, Natasha, their family members, the principal of Elaan's school.
They are remarkable individuals and an even stronger team.
JULIE IRETON: Testimonials like this one from his pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
I have learned more from Natasha, Lynda and Elaan about humanity, loyalty and devotion than they will ever appreciate.
JULIE IRETON: Here’s Natasha.
NATASHA BAKHT: I guess we made good facts. The judge looked at the affidavits in front of him and what we got was an order that simply states that Lynda Margaret Collins is declared a parent of Elaan.
LYNDA COLLINS: So we're going to have a big party and celebrate our family, but also our friends and all our family members and our community that have been so wonderful to us. It's kind of human nature to make a big deal about the bad things, but we think it's important to make a big deal about the good things.
JULIE IRETON: Their lawyer, Marta.
MARTA SIEMIARCZUK: Lynda has the same obligations and responsibilities now as any other parent, adoptive or natural. If something happens, if Natasha is incapacitated, she's able to take care of him as any other parent would with all the same rights as well. She will forever, for the rest of her life, have a financial obligation to him and she does this voluntarily, which is huge in my view.
JULIE IRETON: That's coming from a family lawyer who too often fights to get biological parents to pay their share.
MARTA SIEMIARCZUK: It's the uniqueness of this one that I think is so special and I'm so glad I was able to be part of it for them.
[Sound: Guitar playing]
[Singing] Are you a smart boy? You are a smart boy. Are you a gorgeous boy? You are a gorgeous boy. And everybody loves you.
JULIE IRETON: The women had set legal precedent. They had created a new kind of family sanctioned under the law. But that achievement was short lived. Natasha puts on her family law prof hat.
NATASHA BAKHT: It’s precedent in the sense that the word is now getting out there, that this has existed. But it looks to me as though legislation, as it currently stands, forecloses the possibility of this happening again, unless there's an amendment to the legislation, or as I said we have a constitutional challenge to the adoption act, which may very well be coming now given that families are becoming much more diverse.
JULIE IRETON: It's all about timing and their timing was lucky. In January, around the same time they received the new birth certificate, a new law came into force in Ontario. Under the All Families are Equal Act, Ontarians must now enter into a "parentage agreement" before conception.
LYNDA COLLINS: I’m very grateful that we brought the application when we did and I'm hopeful that there's more space in the new legislation than we think. I can't think that the legislature meant to preclude a situation like this. Here’s a severely disabled little boy with another responsible adult willing to take financial, emotional responsibility for him. But no, she can't because the two parents aren’t in a sexual relationship. I mean it just makes no sense whatsoever.
JULIE IRETON: Lynda and Natasha still plan to write about their victory and talk about it with their law students.
NATASHA BAKHT: I'm always trying to get them to think outside their own understanding of family relationships. I'm getting them to think about non-conjugal relationships, plural unions, multiple parents. And they’re not always the nuclear mom and dad with the requisite two children.
[Sound: Elaan gags]
JULIE IRETON: At home, these moms are looking towards their family's future. There is still room for each woman to have their own romantic partners. Both Lynda and Natasha say the family could expand. But their new, legal status doesn't make life with Elaan any less daunting. They're hopeful, but the future is uncertain.
LYNDA COLLINS: It's not that it's easy. Of course, it's scary sometimes to think about his future and the medical difficulties that we sometimes have had. Last year we were in the emergency room four times, all with potentially life-threatening. That's scary. Natasha is the centre of his life and his momma and I think he perceives me also as a parent.
NATASHA BAKHT: This is my co-momma.
LYNDA COLLINS: I mean it's a privilege to be his parent. I always wanted to be a parent and I'm really grateful for Natasha that she gave me that. She didn't have to do that either. She could have just maintained sort of the privileged position of being the only legal parent. I wasn't going to walk away. There is no condition on this. So it's a give and take with all three of us.
MF: You’ve been listening to an encore presentation of Elaan’s Two Mommas, a documentary produced by CBC’s Julie Ireton with The Current’s documentary editor Josh Bloch. Well, since that documentary first aired in February, there have been a few updates. Elaan graduated from the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre and the story received coverage around the world from India to Italy and beyond. As a result, both Natasha and Lynda have been overwhelmed by the positive support they received. For more on Lynda, Natasha and Elaan, go to our website: www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. That’s our program for today. Stay tuned to Radio One for The Current’s summer series. It’s called The Disruptors and today, The Disruptors heads to San Francisco and explores how Silicon Valley’s technology start-ups have disrupted the city’s celebrated diversity, evicting long-time residents out of their homes to make room for the wealthy.
The reality is I feel safest here. In fact, the day after Trump’s election, my brother called me from Philly and said, “Oh, I’m worried about you.” And I said “No, I’m in the safest place I could be in this country. Believe me. I am safe here. I won’t be safe anywhere else.” The fact that we’re losing this, it’s epic proportions of tragedy. And especially because we’re not losing it because of a natural evolution, because everything’s cool now and we can live in Iowa and Kansas and all those other horrible places that I would never live. But it’s not that. We’re losing it because there’s greedy—I want to curse but I won’t—there are greedy people out there who see this as a place you come to, to just buy buildings, drive out the long-term tenants so they can flip it and make lots of money. It’s really capitalism on steroids. Our neighbourhood is going to become this upscale neighbourhood for tech folks. I mean, I can’t begin to tell you how angry that makes me—that we’re losing this because of greed.
MF: More from San Francisco coming up on The Disruptors. Finally today, after our earlier discussion about the ethics of robot sex, how about a little James Brown? I’m Mike Finnerty. Have a great weekend. Thanks for listening to the summer edition of The Current and we’ll see you on Monday.
[Music: “Get Up” – James Brown]
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