Addressing the Urgent Need for Parentage Reform

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Photo via Unsplash.
Photo via Unsplash.

All children gain security and benefits from legal ties to their parents. Yet children with LGBTQ parents, and those born through assisted reproduction, lack clear and simple ways to establish legal parentage in many states. Two key advocates in Michigan's successful recent effort to make parentage laws more equitable and inclusive shared advice with me that they hope will help other states, including Massachusetts, do the same.

"I think it comes down to a willingness to listen and learn," said Stephanie Jones, founder of the Michigan Fertility Alliance (MFA), a grassroots, volunteer organization that led the charge for reform. The MFA's initial focus was on decriminalizing contractual surrogacy in Michigan, the only state where it was illegal, and clarifying paths to parentage for children born via surrogacy. By listening to families and "understanding other struggles," however, Jones said, "We knew we needed to expand that focus."

Polly Crozier, director of family advocacy at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), which partnered with the MFA on the effort, commended it for the "active and intentional decision" to ask, "How can we be as broad as possible to protect every child, no matter the circumstances of their birth?"

The answer was the Michigan Family Protection Act (MFPA). The MFPA is based on the 2017 Uniform Parentage Act (UPA), a best-practice model law developed by the bipartisan Uniform Law Commission, which lays out equitable paths to parentage for LGBTQ families and those formed via assisted reproduction.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) signed the MFPA on April 1, making Michigan the 8th state to enact legislation based on or substantially similar to the 2017 UPA, following California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. (Additionally, New Hampshire and New York have comprehensive parentage legislation that is not based on the UPA, per the Movement Advancement Project.) LGBTQ parents and others forming families via assisted reproduction elsewhere, however, may find that establishing parentage is still confusing, expensive, humiliating, and lengthy, leaving children vulnerable.

The urgent need for reform, Crozier believes, was underscored when the Alabama Supreme Court ruled in February that an embryo was a child, causing in vitro fertilization (IVF) providers in the state to halt services. "Attacks on IVF, the notion of personhood [for an embryo], are very scary and dangerous, and could undermine so many families in this country," she said. One positive thing states can do, however, is "pass protections for children already born through assisted reproduction and surrogacy." She explained, "If your children aren't born into a society where they're secured to their parents and have that stability and ability to thrive, you're not protecting reproductive rights."

Furthermore, "The attack on reproductive rights is now so clearly a much broader attack," encompassing abortion, IVF, LGBTQ people, and more, she said. But while some have included parentage in that mix, "We don't see it that way. It's not controversial to protect children."

To help Michigan protect them, Jones sought people with the expertise needed "to make sure that we did as much for as many people as possible." In return, the experts from GLAD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and elsewhere, "respected MFA and allowed us to be the final decision maker," she said, adding, "So many amazing people put hundreds of hours of work into this with zero recognition, and that to me is the magic."

Jones was particularly grateful for Crozier's guidance around how to take a child-focused approach so that everything "always comes back to protecting children," she said. "That is how we were able to achieve what we were."

For advocates looking to begin work in other states, Jones advised, "Start building a trusted coalition and make it very clear what your goals are," then start pulling together resources. She also urged "assessing the political landscape" and building relationships with lawmakers, adding, "Education is a key component, and being willing to ask the hard questions."

Additionally, she said, "Understand what parts of the UPA will serve you" and how broad to make your bills, as well as how to be "realistic and strategic with getting language passed. It's a balancing act." Legal experts familiar with your state "can help you understand and navigate that."

Crozier agreed that "there are many ways to approach success." She contrasted Michigan's "large scale" parentage act with a more targeted 2020 bill that GLAD helped pass in New Hampshire to ensure that unmarried couples can adopt children and that LGBTQ parents can confirm their parentage through adoption. "It's not big, it's not showy, but it's critically important," she said.

She also reminded LGBTQ advocates to look for collaborations with other movements, such as reproductive and fertility rights, because "together you know more, you're stronger, and you're smarter." 

For organizations like GLAD that partner in multiple states, Crozier stressed "how incredibly important it is to be grounded in the state you're working in and really understand what families are dealing with and what the political context is."

Part of that includes being aware of what Jones called "wolf in sheep's clothes" legislation being pushed by special-interest groups. Crozier explained, "People need to understand how interconnected parentage, fertility insurance, fertility fraud, gamete regulation, and regulating the storage of embryos are." In both blue and red states, bills dealing with these issues "can have many negative unintended consequences. They're sometimes very nuanced and you need to be reaching out to the folks who are digging deep into those areas to understand."

The good news? "Protecting children and families is an issue that a lot of people connect with and in many states, parentage reform is seen as just common sense," Crozier said. She pointed to the Maine Parentage Act, unanimously adopted with a Republican legislature, and the Connecticut Parentage Act, which passed with only one vote against it. The MFPA, too, garnered some Republican support. "When you're building families and protecting children, you want to be on the side of right," she asserted, as the scramble to undo the consequences of the Alabama decision showed.

UPA-based parentage bills are now pending in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, but those are not the only states whose parentage statutes need updating. Crozier said, "States need to be really focused on passing this legislation, because the attacks are coming—they're already here—and you want to signal to the children and families in your state that 'We protect every child.'"

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (, a two-time GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory, plus a searchable database of 1,500+ LGBTQ family books.