Caroline O'Doherty asks if society is ready to deal with the implications of gay parenthoodWHEN Hollywood dreamed up box office smash Three Men and a Baby, cinema audiences lapped it up like infant formula.

The story was simple - three confirmed bachelor buddies have their lives thrown upside down when the occasional girlfriend of one of them dumps her baby in their laps and disappears into the city skyline.

Luckily for the producers, the audience weren't any more sophisticated. Nobody raised the awkward questions of morality inherent in matters of casual sex, unplanned parenthood and child abandonment.

Viewers were content instead to laugh at the trio struggling to come to terms with nappy contents, sleepless nights and the intricacies of the infant digestive system.

Maybe it helped that Tom Selleck was one of them, but as the soft focus film followed the pals on their personal epiphanies, reviewing their hedonistic ways, getting in touch with their feminine side and discovering the rewards of responsibility, the baby had to compete for the oohs and aahs.

Change the script to make the dads gay, however, and you go from matinee to over 18s in one ring of the alarm bell. Now, instead of a comic caper, you have a serious situation that poses questions about society's treatment of families that don't fit the traditional mould.

Gerard Whelan and John MacMahon didn't want to be mould-breakers. The gay partners, who have become parents of triplets born to a surrogate mother in the United States, just wanted to have a family of their own and set out to make their dream come true.

In doing so, they followed in the footsteps of British couple, Barrie Drewitt and Tony Barlow, who came under the spotlight last year for similarly acquiring the services of a surrogate American mum.

But Gerard Whelan and John MacMahon's arrival in Ireland with their three tiny bundles has given rise to more questions than the legislature here, and possibly society as a whole, is ready or able to answer.

Surrogacy itself is strewn with doubts. There is no legislation here to deal with surrogate births and legal experts wonder how watertight a contract would be if a dispute arose.

A transatlantic arrangement makes the legalities more complicated. Between the new dads there is also room for confusion. If only one is a biological parent, the rights of the other are shaky.

There is a second factor that makes the case of Gerard Whelan and John MacMahon cause for comment. They are gay. The law forbids them to marry and nature forbids them jointly procreating, so some will ask whether they should be allowed form a family at all.

Kieran Rose, co-chairman of the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, feels sympathy for the couple.

"It must be difficult enough having three young children to rear without trying to do it in the glare of publicity and your parenthood being a media issue," he said.

But on the wider issues of surrogacy and gay parenthood, he says only the former should create any excitement.

"It's not a gay or straight issue. If there is a need for legislation on surrogacy, its focus should be the protection of the children."

While Gerard Whelan and John MacMahon may be the most visible examples of late, Rose is certain they aren't the only gay parents in Ireland.

"It's not unusual for lesbian woman to have children and there are gay men are fathers already and only come out later in life. It doesn't change the fact that they are fathers and love their children."

As for the old chestnut about children being more likely to become gay if brought up in a gay household, he has a simple answer.

"Most gay people grow up with heterosexual parents and it doesn't stop them being gay. It's the quality of parenthood that should count, not whether a parent is gay or not."

But there are legal difficulties facing gay parents. An Equality Authority report published earlier this year on the partnership rights of same-sex couples found lesbian and gay couples were treated differently in matters of adoption, custody, guardianship and assisted reproduction.

The law is not always discriminatory but the practice sometimes is, and while test cases have yet to be taken, it is felt some presumptions could take a hammering under the Equal Status Act of 2000, which outlaws discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or marital status.

But while the law lags behind, at least two gay dads are doing it for themselves. There could be a movie in it - and the protagonists wouldn't be alone in hoping for a happy ending.