Polyamorous families face discrimination from health care providers during pregnancy: study

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Published Oct. 11, 2019 5:46 p.m. ET
Updated Oct. 19, 2019 10:07 p.m. ET
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At first glance, Taryn Spence and her husband AJ are a traditional Canadian family. The two met in high school. Together, they have a four-year-old daughter, Bri, and Taryn is expecting another child.

But a look at Bri’s drawings of her family show a second man with her mother and father – and this man is the father of Taryn’s second child.

This unconventional family is part of what researchers say is a growing trend of polyamorous relationships, where several consenting adults engage in romantic relationships, sometimes living together. And sometimes, like the Spence family, even sharing a home and raising children together.

“We have three parents that can take care of our kids as opposed to just two,” Taryn told CTV News. “It makes things easier, there are three incomes, that helps.”

But Canadian researchers at McMaster University who studied 24 of these “alternative families” say they aren’t always accepted by the medical system when they decide to have a baby.

Families in polyamorous relationships experience healthcare barriers and discrimination during pregnancy and birth, but hospitals could mitigate the stress with some changes, according to research findings published in a new study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) on Tuesday.

The challenges polyamorous couples face vary from lack of acknowledgement of all partners to negative judgement when the relationship status is disclosed, and logistical nuisances such as newborn identification bracelets.

The study included 13 partners and 11 women who gave birth within the last five years from across the country.

“In terms of childbearing experiences, partners often felt like they weren’t validated in the health care interactions,” Elizabeth Darling, study author, told “For example, if the person giving birth had two partners and one partner was a male and the other was a female, the male partner was always prioritized or seen as the legitimate partner while the female partner was ignored.”

Darling, assistant dean and midwifery associate professor at McMaster University, and her co-authors felt like it was important to investigate the experiences of polyamorous relationships given the growing popularity of non-traditional relationships with multiple partners.

A 2017 study found that more than one in five Americans have engaged in a non-monogamous relationship with multiple partners.

There is no Canadian data on families in polyamorous relationships, but researcher Erika Arseneau says “it is more common than people think.”

Arseneau said there were many ways that polyamorous relationships could be formulated, encompassing all sexual orientations.

“Some people are married, but have opened to have other relationships,” Arseneau told CTV News. “Some aren’t married and there isn’t the same legal protection.”

In the Spence family, all three parents live together in the same house with Bri. The second man, the father of Taryn’s second child, did not want to be named.

Their family strikes the perfect balance in Taryn’s eyes. Her husband AJ agrees.

“There is more freedom when you have that third person,” he said.

It takes the pressure off of parents, he believes.

“When it’s just the two of you, you kind of have to rely solely on each other, but when you have that extra third person, you can almost take a night off to kind of, recover, recharge.”

The study co-author and researcher at McMaster University, Samantha Landry, said that polyamorous families face a dilemma in maternity wards when ID bracelets are only offered to one mother and one father, excluding other “parental figures.”

However, she added, some in polyamorous relationships are afraid to tell medical staff about their living arrangement and the existence of multiple parents at all, over fear of losing their children.

“They were worried that they might report them and say that they were bad parents,” Landry said, “or say that they were … living in a ‘wrong’ way that could be dangerous to children.”

The findings of the researchers showed the opposite: although polyamorous people “experience stigma,” Landry said, the impact on children was “very positive.”

Having more parents provided more than just the support of multiple incomes, researchers found.

“Always having someone available to pick up a child from school,” was one benefit, Arseneau said, as was “always having someone available to help with homework.”

“One human has the potential to love a number of humans and people can be OK with that,” Landry added.

“There is no protection for alternative family structures.”

Taryn Spence said she hopes that in the future, those in the medical profession would extend compassion instead of judgement.

She added that she also hopes “families that have faced these challenges in terms of medical care … learn it is not as big a deal as some make it out to be.

“(Polyamorous) families should be confident they can go and be honest about who they are.”


Darling said there are a few basic things doctors and health care providers could implement that would improve the experience of the polyamorous family during pregnancy and birth.

“Acknowledgement and using language that demonstrates openness is important,” she said. “Being accommodating such as allowing more than one person in the room during a procedure is helpful.”

Being an ally and taking on the role of an advocate is also significant, Darling pointed out.

“Sometimes there is a repeated need to disclose family arrangements and that can be challenging for people to have to constantly explain their relationship to strangers,” she said.

A midwife could take on the responsibility of explaining the family status to all the health care providers involved in the pregnancy or birth.

“Participants [of the study] said having that advocacy was very much appreciated,” said Darling.

Doctors could also explain the medical relevancy of their questions.

“It would make people feel more comfortable because then they know the questions are being asked for medical purposes and not just because the doctor is curious,” said Darling.


Darling said people often ask friends for referrals when searching for a family doctor who might be more accommodating and accepting of a non-traditional family.

“When selecting a provider, the families would often approach their first visit as an opportunity to interview the doctor,” she said.

“They might ask direct questions or make assessments about the space, such as look for symbols that would suggest it’s an LGBTQ2-friendly space. They would also assess the kind of language the care provider uses in their initial interaction.”

With files from Mariam Matti