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About Isabella

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By April Witt
Sunday, February 4, 2007

JANET AND LISA MILLER-JENKINS MADE LOVE IN THE MORNING BEFORE LEAVING FOR THE DOCTOR'S OFFICE. At least that's how Janet remembers it. "We had a connection in the morning before we left," Janet said. Afterward, eager to keep their tender connection alive amid the clinical setting of the infertility specialist's office, Janet laid her hands upon her partner -- one palm on Lisa's thigh, the other on Lisa's upper arm -- as a doctor inseminated Lisa with sperm from an anonymous man the two women knew only as donor No. 2309. It was, according to Janet, a ritual the Virginia couple repeated more than once before Lisa gave birth April 16, 2002, to a 5-pound, 15-ounce baby girl named Isabella Ruth Miller-Jenkins.

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"This baby was made in love," said Janet, now 42 and living in Vermont.

Lisa, 38, offers a dramatically different account of the begetting of Isabella. According to her, Janet didn't even go with her to the fertility doctor's office on the day Isabella was conceived.

That's just one of many issues Lisa and Janet are arguing in court, where the final chapters of their modern love story are being written. As with other couples who have split, their truths have diverged; through the lens of loss, each views their time together differently. Unlike most warring couples, however, the once hopeful and happy Miller-Jenkinses are at the center of a high-stakes, ideologically charged legal dispute waged across several courtrooms in two states. On one side are lawyers who are leading gay-rights activists; on the other are legal combatants for a conservative Christian foundation associated with Jerry Falwell.

These lawyers are sifting through every detail of the Miller-Jenkinses' lives -- from how Isabella was conceived to who burped the baby. They are not fighting over the mundane detritus of love lost: Who gets the house? Who gets stuck with the old car? Who is on the hook for braces should Isabella require them? They are debating questions so profound that the answers have the power to affect legions of families gay and straight: Who is a parent? Who has the legal rights of a parent?

In the Miller-Jenkins case, those questions have been raised in Vermont, where state statutes explicitly recognize parental rights for same-sex couples in civil unions, and in Virginia, where they don't. That discrepancy has left Isabella -- and a growing number of children like her nationwide -- on the legal battlefield of what one judge in the case called civil war.

"THAT'S GRANDPA." LISA'S DAD.

"That's Aunt Jennifer and me."

Isabella, 4 1/2 years old, narrated the family photographs arrayed atop an old piano. It was the day before last Thanksgiving in a toy-strewn house in Winchester, Va. Isabella is a cheerful sprite with butterflies on her dress. The house where she lives is decorated with upbeat plaques and banners with inspirational sayings such as "Believe" and "Scatter Kindness."

"That's me on the horsy at the fair," Isabella said, pointing out another photo atop the piano. "That's me with the leaves."

Isabella smiled shyly when she got to the most important picture of all. "That is Mommy and me," Isabella said. She pointed to a snapshot in a square frame emblazoned: HAPPINESS.

If, as many people believe, Isabella has two mommies, she doesn't seem to know it. The little girl hasn't seen Janet since she was 2 1/2 years old.


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