Surrogacy births bill sails through House committee

For three weeks, state Rep. Joseph Lopinto worked to quell opposition to setting up a legal framework in Louisiana for gestational surrogacy.

On Monday night, while other legislators made the rounds at session parties, Lopinto gathered the opponents in his State Capitol office and watched the tide finally turn.

“We’ve found common territory that we can agree on,” said Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, to the House Committee on Civil Law and Procedure on Tuesday.

Soon, House Bill 187 was on its way to the House floor after the committee voiced no objection to its advancement.

The compromise includes criminalizing financial compensation other than medical, legal and travel expenses for the surrogacy.

Money for lost wages would be allowed if the surrogate is put on bed rest during the pregnancy.

Any other financial exchange between the surrogate and prospective parents would be considered the sale of a child, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.

Lopinto, R-Metairie, didn’t convince everyone to embrace the bill. The state’s Catholic bishops continue to oppose the proposal as an affront to church teachings.

Rayne schoolgirl Mary Frances Johnson told legislators that a child is a gift from God not something you choose to acquire.

A mother of five, Pamela Matus, describing herself as a Catholic in good standing, said surrogacy demeans women.

Mills’ shift in position likely is significant. He has the ear of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who vetoed similar legislation last year at Mills’ urging.

Surrogacy births — in which a couple’s embryo is implanted in another woman — are not illegal in Louisiana.

The contracts between the surrogate and the parents just aren’t enforceable in the state’s courts, leading to many couples going out of state rather than risk a legal battle in uncharted waters.

Entanglements exist even when the surrogate is carrying a couple’s biological child. Louisiana law recognizes the woman giving birth in the delivery room as the mother even if she’s not the biological mother.

“We really need answers to long-standing questions ... like who is the mother of the child? Under (the) law in Louisiana, it’s the woman who gives birth,” said Andrea Carroll, an LSU family law professor.

For the legislators whose names are on HB187, the issue is a personal one. Lopinto and his wife had twins through in vitro fertilization. State Sen. Gary Smith, D-Norco, and his wife became parents through gestational surrogacy twice.

Mills and the Catholic Church worked against similar legislation last year. His Louisiana Family Forum, which characterizes itself as a voice for traditional families, expressed concerns about creating a womb-for-rent industry.

The opposition swayed some legislators, but the bill still made it to the governor’s desk.

Jindal vetoed it, citing “a profound impact on the traditional beginnings of the family.”

The governor later recommended Lopinto work with the opposition on a renewed bid to set up a legal framework.

Lopinto told legislators Tuesday that surrogates will have to carry children out of the goodness of their hearts, instead of seeking financial gain. “I’ve sat down and I’ve addressed, I guess, 90 percent of that controversy,” he said.

Under HB187, Louisiana’s courts only would oversee surrogacy contracts made by a legally married man and woman who contribute their own genetic material. In other words, it would exclude gay or lesbian couples as well as couples trying to contract with a surrogate using donor eggs.

The lengthy amendments also would set up gestational surrogacy data collection for details about the embryo transfer, the birth, the medical reason for the surrogacy and other information.

The data would go to the state’s vital records registry. The identities of the surrogate and the parents would remain confidential.

Mills said the amendments repaired the original bill.

“I see the pro-life and the pro-family community celebrating,” he said.

Committee members told those who voiced concerns that the bill seeks to set up guidelines for something that already occurs.

“It’s the wild, wild West. This is well written. It’s written by the Law Institute ... They’re bringing us a bill that will allow us to say, ‘OK, we know it’s occurring. This allows us to create some parameters,’ ” said state Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Meraux.