When Judy Appel and her partner of 22 years, Alison Bernstein, wanted to have children, the state of California didn’t make it easy.
Bernstein gave birth to their son using an anonymous sperm donor. But in order for Appel to gain legal custody of her child, she had to go through lengthy, complicated and costly measures to adopt him, which included allowing authorities into the family's home multiple times for evaluations.
“It was really invasive,” Appel told The Huffington Post of the process. “They came into our home and studied it. It’s this extra legal hoop that, just by its nature, sends the message that our family isn’t equal.”
Appel and Bernstein’s son is now 16 years old, and much has changed in California since then. Gay marriage is now recognized under state law, and the adoption process for non-biological children of LGBT couples has become more streamlined. But certain counties in the state still require home visits as part of the adoption process. And if a same-sex couple with children moved to a state that didn’t recognize their marriage, the parents’ legal custody could be in jeopardy had no formal adoption taken place beforehand.
“In California, there’s the presumption that my wife is the parent of my child,” Appel said. “But elsewhere, that puts us at risk. What if a kid ends up in the hospital and one of the parents couldn’t visit?”
A new California bill aims to protect children from ending up in this kind of situation. Authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) and dubbed the Modern Family Act, the first-of-its kind legislation would make adopting easier for LGBT couples in the state who want to start a family, providing legal protections from the moment formal planning begins. The measure would also benefit straight couples and single parents looking to conceive through alternative methods such as in vitro fertilization, sperm donation and surrogacy.
“The science behind having families has advanced more quickly than the laws,” Ammiano told HuffPost in a statement. “This bill is just an attempt to catch up with the realities and help these couples enjoy their modern families.”
The measure, which passed the California Assembly by an overwhelming 60-2 majority earlier this week and now faces a vote in the state Senate before heading to the governor's desk, includes multiple components. First, it would streamline the adoption process for same-sex parents, waiving typically required legal fees (which can range anywhere from $700 to thousands of dollars, according to Ammiano’s office) and protecting the family's privacy by disallowing home visits and other invasive procedures.
“It will especially help for lower-income families in these situations,” Appel, who serves as the executive director of Our Family Coalition, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that supports LGBT parents and their families, noted. “This would provide security for kids across all economic levels.”
The bill would also apply to couples and individuals using what’s called a “known donor” to achieve pregnancy -- in other words, using the sperm or egg of someone with whom they have a relationship, rather than an anonymous donor. Not only would the legislation require that all parties involved sign a statement of parental intention before any medical procedure take place, but it would also require would-be families using alternative reproduction technologies to explore their health insurance options in advance.
Alice Crisci, a government affairs liaison with California Cryobank, the country’s largest sperm donation bank, explained that using a known donor can sometimes lead to complicated legal situations. A donor or surrogate might seek custody of the child after he or she is born, for example, or the intended parents might go after the donor for child support. The Modern Family Act would eliminate any ambiguities at the onset.
“A lot of people use known donors because they want the donor to have a relationship with their child,” she said. “It’s really important that the law is as protective to all parties as possible.”
Crisci added that when legal issues arise after the fact, cases put pressure on California’s already-bloated family court system and impose significant financial burdens on everyone involved. “You can go broke defending your right to be a parent,” she said. “And it’s leaving the children vulnerable.”
Renata Moreira, the policy and communications director at Our Family Coalition, married her wife, Lori Bilella, in San Francisco last year following the overturn of Prop 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage. She and Bilella hope to start a family in the near future using Bilella’s egg and a known sperm donor. Moreira will then carry the pregnancy herself so that, as she explained to HuffPost, she and her wife both have the opportunity to bond emotionally with their unborn child.
“The Modern Family Act will directly protect my intention to parent the child I will subsequently carry,” she said in a statement of support for the bill, adding to HuffPost that the legislation would “reduce the need for any future litigation in case something goes awry.”
Appel is quick to point out that the legislation reflects society’s evolving definition of what constitutes a family. “We’re in an age in which people create their families in different ways. This act allows for clear understandings going in, so we can create a loving environment for our kids,” she said. “It’s not to protect our rights, but to protect the security of our children.”