Lawmakers have personal stake in surrogacy debate

As a committee chairman and a fellow Republican, state Rep. Joseph Lopinto usually is in step with Gov. Bobby Jindal on political issues. Things changed after Lopinto and his wife, Lauren, struggled with fertility problems.

The Lopintos used in-vitro fertilization to become parents. Now Lopinto, R-Metairie, and state Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, are teaming up on legislation that would create a legal framework in Louisiana for gestational surrogacy.

In surrogacy, parents supply their sperm and eggs, and a surrogate carries their biological child.

The Legislature passed and Jindal vetoed similar legislation last year after the Louisiana Family Forum and the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops voiced their opposition.

The plan this year is to push the bill through early enough for the threat of a veto override to hover over the governor as he deliberates. An override is more of a threat when legislators still are in session.

“A veto override is not an embarrassment,” Lopinto said, adding that there are people who cannot wait for the next governor because they’re aging or they lack the finances to pursue parenthood in a state more accepting of surrogacy arrangements.

Unlike in other states, contracts between a couple and surrogates are unenforceable in Louisiana’s courtrooms. Surrogacy isn’t illegal in Louisiana, but the birth mother is presumed to be the child’s mother even if she carried someone else’s biological child. The lack of a legal framework worries prospective parents.

What Lopinto and Smith seek to do through House Bill 187 is authorize courts to approve gestational surrogacy contracts when a husband and wife encounter medical problems in producing a child. They want to clarify that the woman giving birth should not be the presumed parent.

HB187 aims to:

Get the contract worked out and approved by the court ahead of the pregnancy.

Require surrogates to be at least 25 years old.

Require surrogates to relinquish parental rights.

Limit compensation to medical, mental health counseling, living and travel costs. The living costs would terminate six months after the child’s birth. The legislation aims to protect the parents from surrogates launching blackmail schemes. It also seeks to modernize Louisiana law by recognizing who the legal parents are.

“It is being done legally in states all across this country. It can be done right now in Louisiana. Surrogacy is not illegal,” Lopinto said.

Robert Tasman, associate director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, said surrogacy turns pregnancy into a commodity and deprives women of dignity. Using a surrogate involves medical processes that often create more than one embryo, raising issues about what happens to the spare embryos, he said.

“Our position has not changed on surrogacy. Based on the teachings of the church, we’ll be called to oppose it,” Tasman said.

Louisiana Family Forum President Gene Mills said HB187 tilts too much in favor of the biological parents without offering protection for the surrogates. He also has concerns about the commercialization of human reproduction.

“We’re opening doors that we heretofore have not,” Mills said.

Other bills dealing with surrogacy include:

House Bill 718 by state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs. The proposal creates the crime of enticing a minor into surrogacy. A range of penalties is included. The harshest would be 20 to 50 years in prison when the minor is younger than 14.

Senate Bill 521 by state Sen. Rick Ward III, D-Maringouin. The bill would limit a surrogate’s compensation to medical bills and payment for medical complications.

Jindal said the bills’ authors need to reach a consensus with the opposition.

“We have not read those bills or talked to those authors. I would encourage them to work with the pro-life community,” the governor said.

For Smith, the issue is very personal. He and his wife, Katherine, are parents because of gestational surrogacy. They went out of state to have their son and daughter.

“We expect to pass it and hopefully have better luck with the governor this time. This is taking place. We just need some rules or regulations,” Smith said.