by: Susan Samples
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Cortney Welz and Stephanie Trombley were strangers to each other, united only by their unique paths to motherhood and now by their desires to change Michigan’s anti-surrogacy stance.
“I vowed to myself that I wasn’t going to be quiet. I was going to use my voice to make an impact,” Welz said from her Grand Rapids Township home.
Welz and Trombley are both married but are unable to carry babies themselves due to medical conditions.
The women and their husbands each turned to gestational surrogates to have children. Both couples were blessed with healthy sets of twins, conceived through IVF and carried by surrogates with the help of The Fertility Center in Grand Rapids.
At the center, Dr. William Dodds obtained eggs and sperm from each woman and their respective husbands and implanted them into the surrogates.
“We would always have to explain to people, ‘my DNA, her body,’” Cortney Welz recalled, referring to her surrogate, Tera Griesmer.
Griesmer, a close friend of Will and Cortney Welz, is married with three children of her own.
Stephanie and David Trombley’s surrogate, Stephanie’s sister, Olivia, is also married with children of her own.
“If it weren’t my sister, knowing the way Michigan law is, I don’t think I could do it with someone I didn’t know,” Stephanie Trombley said.
Michigan law bans paid surrogacy outright and declares any surrogacy contract, “contrary to public policy” and “void and unenforceable” in court, even those not compensated.
>>Michigan’s Surrogate Parenting Act (PDF)
That means intended parents have to adopt their own biological children after birth.
“You’re hit with, ‘Now it’s time for you to go visit an adoption agency,’” Cortney Welz recalled.
“An adoption agency? What do mean an adoption agency? They’re my biological children. They (told me), ‘These babies don’t legally belong to you. They belong to Tera (Welz’s surrogate) and her husband.”
The Welzes said it ultimately cost them around $18,000 to adopt their twins, William and Genevieve, through an agency that routinely visited their home over six months to ensure it was appropriate for children.
“I had climbed mountains, 13 years of infertility treatments,” Cortney Welz said. “And now I had these thriving babies, yet I had an adoption agency that was now starting a process to judge me and my husband, our lives, our past lives, literally having to treat us as if we were unfit until they deemed us fit to parent.”
Melissa Neckers, a Grand Rapids family law attorney who represented both Cortney Welz and Stephanie Trombley, considers Michigan’s surrogacy laws the “worst” in the nation.
“I mean, it’s offensive to have to adopt your own biological child,” Neckers said in an interview with Target 8. “Think about all the people that get pregnant that have never thought one bit about being pregnant and then these people work so hard to have babies and then they still have to adopt them. It’s crazy.”
But Neckers said there are a handful of Michigan judges who are sparing intended parents the stress and expense of having to adopt their own biological children.
She cited 30 cases across 11 counties in which judges signed pre-birth orders between 1999 and 2018, which designated the intended parents as the legal parents upon the child’s birth — no adoption necessary.
The list now includes one pre-birth order signed in Kent County for Stephanie and David Trombley.
After helping Will and Cortney Welz through the adoption process, Neckers decided to try for a pre-birth order in the Trombley’s case.
“When you’re filing the case, you just get the luck of the draw,” Neckers explained. “Whoever’s next in line, and we (in Trombley’s case) got a judge who was very open to it. She signed (the pre-birth order) without even having a hearing.”
The judge who signed it, Kent County Family Court Judge Deborah McNabb, declined an interview with Target 8.
But another family court judge, Kathleen Feeney, sat down for an interview with Target 8 about Michigan surrogacy laws in general.
Feeney did not realize that any judges had signed pre-birth orders in Michigan, let alone a judge in her own courthouse.
“I had no idea these were being signed across the state of Michigan,” Feeney said.
“I’m going to start looking into this more now that I know people are getting these orders signed because (the judges) are essentially recognizing the surrogacy piece of this without recognizing the fact that in this state these contracts are void and against public policy,” she said.
Map courtesy of Creative Family Connections LLC. State surrogacy laws can change, so the map is updated frequently.
>>Online: Gestational surrogacy laws by state
Target 8 provided Feeney with the document Neckers filed to request the Pre-birth Order.
“Hmmm, that’s creative,” Feeney commented while reading the filing.
Feeney declined to discuss whether she would have signed the document, but she made it clear that Michigan law does not recognize surrogacy contracts.
“In Michigan right now, today, this minute, they are void as against public policy,” Feeney said. “So, if you wanted to have a surrogate carry a child to term for you, we don’t enforce those in Michigan. People have to go other places to have that done. I think once in the past 20 years I’ve been asked to sign one of those, and I looked at it and said, ‘I can’t because the statute says that they are void as against public police and we don’t enforce those.’”
Feeney also expressed concern about unforeseen problems that might arise during a pregnancy.
“Boy, you’re treading on thin ice when you’re talking about someone else carrying your baby for you and some of the pitfalls that might occur during the nine-month, maybe year-long process of selecting somebody, the implanting, carrying the child, giving birth to the child all the rest of that,” she said.
Cortney Welz pointed out that all parties discuss and agree beforehand how they will handle the situation if potential problems arise. Intended parents and surrogates are also required to undergo medical and psychological evaluations before they can move forward with the process.
“The only thing that’s constant about human nature is that it’s unpredictable,” Feeney said. “I’ve seen something that should be very easy and very simple become nightmares overnight, and you can never predict, not in a million zillion years.”
In 2018, state Sen. Rebekah Warren, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, introduced a bill that would have legalized surrogacy, paid or unpaid, in Michigan. The bill never made it out of committee.
>> Proposed revision to law
Target 8 contacted Warren’s office to find out when or if she plans to try again. We did not hear back.
Dr. William Dodds of The Fertility Center hopes state lawmakers will provide a legal path to surrogacy — paid and unpaid.
“The Michigan law was written for traditional surrogacy,” Dodds said, referring to the practice of surrogates using their own egg. “It wasn’t written for gestational surrogacy.”
Michigan was one of the first states to ban paid surrogacy in the wake of the Baby M case in the mid-80s.
The New Jersey surrogate who carried Baby M decided she wanted to keep the baby, leading to a protracted and high-profile court battle.
The surrogacy broker who arranged that disastrous deal was based in Dearborn, Michigan, prompting state lawmakers to take action to outlaw the practice.
But 30 years ago, surrogates like the one who carried Baby M used their own eggs. Today, through medical advances, surrogates use the eggs of the intended mother or a donor.
“(Michigan) is a little behind in terms of how they view (surrogacy),” Dodds said.
But a California-based organization, the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network, is pushing to keep commercial surrogacy illegal.
“Michigan has a very good law, model legislation in my opinion,” Jennifer Lahl, the organization’s founder and president, wrote in an email to Target 8.
“Our campaign is full of people from all around the world working together to stop surrogacy. We see surrogacy as a human rights violation to women and children and believe that no amount of regulation can protect women who serve as surrogates and children who are born of surrogacy. We don’t pay organ donors and the commercial payment to women is also very troubling. It quite literally is the buying and selling of children,” Lahl continued.
Gestational surrogacy nationwide, courtesy the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology:
*A cycle is defined as one attempt to transfer an embryo into a gestational carrier, including the use of medication to bring the carrier’s reproductive cycle into alignment with the intended mother when the intended mother is the provider of the egg.
But Cortney Welz and Stephanie Trombley are committed to making their voices heard. Both want to see Michigan make it easier for childless couples to build their families through gestational surrogacy.
“It’s time to wake up,” Courtney Welz said. “It’s time to realize that you can’t just ignore these things. These things are happening right here in all of your backyards. Why are we ignoring it?”
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