Edward Palmieri and Christopher Schriever were on the George Washington Bridge, barreling north on Interstate 95, when their twin babies were born. The couple arrived at the hospital after dawn to meet their children and settled into a room that had been reserved for their new family.
Kelli Rapp, a Vermont woman they had contracted with to carry their children, was recovering from an emergency Caesarean section in a room nearby. The Washington couple spent the next two days wheeling the babies’ bassinets between their rooms, visiting with her family and extended relatives.
The first days after birth were “a mix of complete joy and fear: This is really happening,” Palmieri said. “It was such a process.”
The couple’s journey to parenthood involved an egg donor, a surrogate, legal teams in six states, and well over $150,000 spent over the course of 2½ years.
Three years later, they have reason to hope that the path to parenthood will be more streamlined for other District residents: A 25-year-old law that banned surrogacy contracts was recently reversed by the D.C. Council. That means would-be parents will no longer need to leave the District to contract with a surrogate. The law, passed in December, became effective in April after a required congressional review.
The shift signals sweeping changes in how reproduction is being re-engineered. State and city governments are rethinking old policies, as gay rights and infertility advocates, joined by a lucrative fertility industry, are protesting barriers to building families. Many see more-permissive surrogacy laws as a natural progression from marriage equality.
“In the District, we are a place where we respect all couples and how they choose to start a family,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who introduced the city’s bill. “That’s what we are about.”
Massachusetts is now considering a law that would codify surrogacy rights that have been bestowed by courts over time. And in New York, one of five states that still bans the practice, a legislative committee on Tuesday approved a pro-surrogacy bill that has been stalled in Albany for several years.
And yet even as laws expand, opponents of surrogacy, including some feminists, human rights advocates and religious conservatives, say the practice is an unnatural kind of social engineering that exploits women. Ethical concerns have caused other countries, including much of Western Europe, to restrict paid surrogacy.
“People don’t really understand the harm and damage this does to women, and the real medical risks,” said Jennifer Lahl, president of the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture. She attributed the growth of surrogacy in the United States to “rugged individualism” and a headfirst trust of technology.
But supporters say that surrogacy represents a rare chance to create families for some people, and in the absence of laws regulating surrogacy, would-be parents and surrogates are both vulnerable.
“Becoming a parent should be a joyous occasion, not an illegal act. We need to legalize and regulate compensated surrogacy contracts sensibly,” said New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D), a gay father who is expecting a second child with help from a surrogate in California.
More than 2,000 babies are born in the United States to surrogates each year, according to conservative estimates, triple the number a decade ago. It’s a business with potential to bloom in the District, which is home to a sizable gay community and reputable fertility clinics, and it has favorable adoption laws.
The D.C. law, along with a handful of other friendly statutes, streamlines the process for intended parents, allowing them to secure legal parenting rights during pregnancy that become effective at birth, so that their names can be printed on the birth certificate and they can avoid subsequent adoption proceedings.
The law applies to any would-be parent, regardless of whether they are married or single or gay or straight, or biologically related to the child or not.
For those interested in pursuing surrogacy, the law did a 180-degree turn, said Diane Hinson, an attorney focused on assisted reproduction whose firm in Chevy Chase, Md., maintains a map of the nation’s changing surrogacy laws. “It went from the worst of the worst to the best of the best,” she said.
In the absence of federal regulations, states vary widely in approaches to surrogacy. A majority of states have a law or court ruling that guides surrogacy decisions, though they vary in how restrictive they are. In many states, decisions are left to judges and can be unpredictable.
Virginia has a law that limits compensation to medical and ancillary expenses and says that the surrogate cannot consent to transfer her parenting rights until three days after the birth of the child.
Maryland has no state law, but a favorable ruling by the highest court has created a legal environment in which many family courts are friendly to the practice.
When it passed the surrogacy ban in 1993, the District was one of the only places that made it a criminal offense to contract with a surrogate inside the jurisdiction. Even unpaid surrogacy was punishable by a $10,000 fine or a year in jail.
At the time, in vitro fertilization was in its infancy. As the technology developed and became more widely used as a means to become pregnant, surrogacy evolved. Now surrogates are almost always contracted to carry a fetus conceived with someone else’s egg and sperm.
Gestational surrogacy, in which the surrogate is not biologically related to the baby, avoids some legal challenges. But many opponents say ethical and physical risks remain.
During a D.C. Council hearing in 2013, when the council first considered overturning the surrogacy ban, several opponents warned about the ethical concerns that arise when the fertility industry profits by “renting wombs.”
Some questioned the long-term health risks to women who take hormone treatments to donate their eggs and the consequences of “turning a normal biological function of a woman’s body into a commercial transaction.”
The new D.C. law sets out guidelines for surrogacy agreements: A surrogate has to be over 21 and have given birth to her own child. Both parties must obtain independent counsel and undergo a psychological evaluation. Surrogates in the District can be paid, and the law also permits traditional surrogacy, now rarely practiced, in which the carrier is genetically linked to the child.
Compensation for surrogates typically runs upward of $30,000, according to lawyers who negotiate surrogacy agreements.
Rapp, 38, a hospital secretary from Windsor, Vt., said she was “so delighted” when she had her own son five years ago and that she wanted to help someone else who could not have the same joy. “It was my way to say ‘Thank you’ for my son,” she said.
She applied to Circle Surrogacy, a Boston-based agency, and was matched with Palmieri and Schriever.
The couple, now both 41, had talked about having a family from the early days of their relationship. Palmieri, an attorney for Facebook, and Schriever, who has a marketing firm, had been together for a decade when they embarked on the long process of making their hopes become reality.
By the time they met Rapp, the couple had already tried twice with another surrogate in West Virginia, but neither pregnancy was viable.
The embryos transferred to Rapp’s uterus were created from donated eggs that had been fertilized with sperm from each man, so they did not know who the biological father would be. They were thrilled when Rapp became pregnant with twins.
Schriever said it was “surreal” to share a pregnancy with someone in another state, but he said they felt very comfortable with her. “She was like a member of the family,” he said.
The couple traveled to Vermont for the first sonogram and another visit at 18 weeks when they found out they were having a boy and a girl. In between, Rapp recorded the heartbeats during doctor visits for them and emailed pictures of the sonograms.
And as her belly grew, the men said they sent Rapp thank you notes and flowers and had cookies delivered to her house.
Rapp said she was protective of her role as the carrier and their role as parents. “I knew from the very beginning they weren’t my children,” she said.
Since the twins’ births three years ago, Rapp, Palmieri and Schriever have stayed in touch and are planning to see one another in Vermont this summer.
“I love hearing stories about them and seeing the parents that Chris and Eddie are to them,” she said. “I am so proud that there are two wonderful people in this world because I could help.”
On a recent night at the couple’s D.C. rowhouse, Palmieri assembled a racetrack with Gavin, and Schriever turned himself into a human jungle gym for Helen, who demanded to be thrown into the air “Again!” and “Again!” so she could “touch the sky!”
The couple said they are “proud” to live in a place that no longer considers the way they built their family a crime.
And they are hopeful that more people can experience what they described as the “more mess” and “more love” lifestyle that goes along with becoming a family.
“We were determined to make it happen,” Palmieri said. “But there were a lot of head winds.”