NASHVILLE -- A woman who gave birth to triplets by using another woman's eggs is still their mother and can maintain primary custody -- even without a genetic link to the children, an appeals court ruled.

The woman, identified as "Pepper" in court documents, was 45 in 1999 when she decided to have children with her partner, identified by the court as "Charles."

Pepper could not produce viable eggs, so the couple got eggs from an anonymous donor and used Charles's sperm to fertilize them. After this procedure -- known as in vitro fertilization -- the embryos were implanted in Pepper's uterus.

Pepper gave birth to triplets in 2001, but the couple's relationship fell apart a few months later. She filed for parental custody of the children and asked for child support payments.

Charles countered that Pepper was neither the mother nor the legal parent because she had no genetic ties to the triplets.

But a three-member panel of the state Court of Appeals in Nashville disagreed in a unanimous decision released last week, finding that Pepper was a legal parent and agreeing with a trial court to award primary custody to her.

The decision, written by Judge Frank Clement Jr., conceded that existing Tennessee law gave little guidance. To arrive at a judgment, the panel looked at similar rulings in other states.

Pepper "has never considered herself anything other than the children's mother," said her attorney, W. Allen Barrett. If the court had taken the children, now 3, away from her, they would have been traumatized, he said.

"I think the Court of Appeals put down a very considered, well-researched opinion," he said. "They chose to keep these children stabilized with the one and only mother they've ever had and will ever know."

Clark Shaw, an attorney for the father, said he plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court because, he says, the law should acknowledge a genetic link when determining parental custody.