GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Rachael Lang grew up around lots of cousins, and she loved it.
“That’s what I wanted for my kids, to be close in age to their cousins,” said Lang from her living room in Grand Rapids.
“Our niece and nephew are going to be five this year. So, every time I talked to my sister-in-law about that, I would just cry because I would count how many years apart our kids would be, and that was really hard for me to think about,” she said.
Lang had planned to have children of her own by now.
But in 2018, nine months after marrying her college sweetheart, Lang was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma at 26 years old.
“My husband and I both started googling what it meant, what treatment might look like and, immediately, my thought turned to, ‘will this affect our ability to start a family?'”
After a double mastectomy and 16 rounds of chemotherapy, Lang must continue taking medication to suppress her hormones.
If she were to stop to try to get pregnant, she would risk her breast cancer reoccurring.
“It just really changed a lot of our plans on what we thought our future would look like,” said Lang.
“It’s been painful for us.”
“IT’S BEEN PAINFUL FOR US”
Fortunately, prior to chemotherapy, doctors were able to retrieve eggs from Lang, and she and her husband created six embryos through IVF — now frozen for future use.
That’s when the Langs learned Michigan laws are among the worst in the nation for couples seeking a gestational surrogate to carry their biological embryo.
It’s a discovery Stephanie Jones made after pregnancy complications forced her and her husband to turn to gestational surrogacy.
The Joneses already had a son, but when they tried to grow their family, Stephanie experienced two ectopic pregnancies, one of them nearly fatal.
“So at that point, I’m lying in the pre-op bed in the hospital, and I knew surrogacy was our only hope now,” Jones said.
It didn’t take long for Stephanie to discover the 1988 state law that made compensated surrogacy a felony in Michigan.
Additionally, even if the Joneses found someone willing to carry their baby without compensation, known as altruistic surrogacy, their contract would not be recognized in the state of Michigan.
That means, unless they can find a surrogacy-friendly judge to sign a Pre-Birth Order, Stephanie and her husband will not be listed as their child’s legal parents on his or her birth certificate.
In that case, they’d be forced to adopt their own biological child back from the surrogate who carried it.
“It’s like the worst state in the entire country, and I just, I’ll never forget that moment of thinking, like, how it this possible? How is this even… this can’t be right,” Jones said.
“THIS CAN’T BE RIGHT”
The Joneses ultimately went through an out-of-state agency to find a gestational surrogate in Kentucky.
The carrier gave birth to the Jones’s healthy baby girl last year.
The entire process cost the Joneses $178,000.
“I knew once we were able to get our arms around what we were going to do to expand our family, the next step would be to fight for other people like myself who need surrogacy, but don’t have a voice, or they’re not sure how to coordinate, or they’re just so angry and frustrated or devastated by what they’re going up against, they can’t (speak out),” she said.
JONES: LAWMAKERS “SHOCKED” BY OUTDATED LAW
In 2020, Jones founded the Michigan Fertility Alliance, and on Sept. 22 of this year, the organization hosted the first ever Michigan Infertility Advocacy Day.
MFA coordinated dozens of Zoom calls in which 50 state lawmakers met with 75 advocates and impacted couples, including Rachael and Alex Lang.
“Roughly 95% of the lawmakers with whom we spoke were completely unaware that the law existed,” recalled Jones.
“They were shocked. Some couldn’t believe it. The thought that we hadn’t done our research and, funny, they did their research and realized that, indeed, we have a 1988 law that criminalizes with a felony and fines contractual surrogacy,” she said. “We are the only state in the nation.”
The goal of the Zoom calls was to raise awareness and educate legislators.
Advocates are currently working on a bill to remove barriers to surrogacy, but it’s not clear when it will be ready for introduction in the state legislature.
Still, Jones says the advocacy day was a resounding success.
LAWMAKER SUPPORTS DECRIMINALIZATION
News 8 reached out to Rachael and Alex Lang’s state senator, Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, whose office responded promptly.
“It’s clear that Michigan’s surrogacy law is antiquated,” wrote Brinks in an email to News 8.
“The way the law is currently written, parents are forced through significant hurdles when having children by way of a gestational surrogate. Additionally, Michigan criminalizes those who participate in (contractual) surrogacy agreements. For many parents, the journey to this point is often difficult, long, and sometimes traumatic, and surrogacy is their last option,” wrote Brinks, who added that she supports decriminalization.
“I think it’s important that we have a mechanism in place to protect the rights of both the gestational carrier and the family that chooses to use surrogacy as an option when expanding their family… I believe we will be able to craft legislation that protects the gestational carrier, the intended parents, and the child.”
As it stands, national agencies that connect intended parents with gestational surrogates will not operate in Michigan.
Such agencies help families safely navigate the surrogacy process and conduct diligent pre-screening of would-be gestational carriers.
“Only three to five percent of women are approved to be carriers,” explained Jones.
“They have to be prefect age, perfect weight, perfect health, cannot take medications, cannot be on government assistance, have already had children of their own in flawless pregnancies, and be done expanding their families,” Jones said. “OK, I just named seven things, and I didn’t have access to any women in my life in Michigan who could do that. Most people don’t.”
Prospective carriers are also required to undergo psychological evaluations, as are their husbands or partners.
Under guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, gestational carriers should be between the ages of 21 and 45 and have had at least one uncomplicated pregnancy but not more than five previous deliveries in total or three via cesarian section.
A SEEKING SURROGATE WEBSITE
Forced to seek a gestational carrier on their own, Rachael and Alex Lang created a website, “Looking To Build Our Family Through Surrogacy.”
They received a couple inquiries, but the women were either too old or had medical conditions that disqualified them.
Then, days after the website went live, one of her cousins stepped forward.
The Langs are grateful, and the embryo transfer is scheduled for later this fall.
While the Langs can cover their medical expenses connected to the pregnancy, they cannot provide any compensation.
Rachael hopes that will change.
“My cousin, she’s providing us a service, something that I’m not able to do,” said Rachael. “She deserves to be compensated for what she’s doing. Right now, she’s doing it out of the goodness of her heart, and not everybody has somebody like that.”