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Bill to legalize gestational surrogacy passes state Senate

Karen DeWitt
State Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks at a news conference Tuesday

The New York State Senate passed a bill Tuesday to legalize paid gestational surrogacy for couples who are unable to have their own children.

But it faces an uncertain future in the Assembly, and opponents range from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to the Catholic Church.

The measure is part of a package of bills that supporters say advance LGBTQ rights, including a measure to prohibit anyone from using the so-called gay or trans panic defense, where someone claims that a person’s sexual identity led them to commit violence against that person.

Brad Hoylman, the Senate sponsor of the gestational surrogacy bill, had to go to California to arrange for a surrogate in order for him and his husband to have a child.

"New Yorkers can now stay in New York, rather than have to travel 3,000 miles like my husband and I did," Hoylman said.

Senators at the news conference were joined by Bravo channel star Andy Cohen, who lives in Hoylman’s Manhattan district and who has been lobbying for the bill. Cohen also appeared at two events with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Cohen, a gay man, said when it came time for him to start a family, he was shocked to learn that gestational surrogacy is illegal in New York.

"How draconian is that?" Cohen said, during an event on Monday at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. "So if a woman went ahead and carried a baby for a gay couple in New York, she would be committing a felony in 2019? It doesn't seem possible to me."

Cohen also traveled to California and now has a 4-month-old son.

Cuomo has promised to sign the bill if the Legislature approves it, and he said his Department of Health would ensure that the rights of women who choose gestational surrogacy will be protected and that they would have access to attorneys.

The bill faces an uncertain future in the state Assembly, and several leading Democratic women who consider themselves feminists oppose it.

Cuomo, during a news conference in Albany, singled out the women, who include Deborah Glick, the first openly lesbian state lawmaker; Helene Weinstein, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee; and Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, past chair of the Women’s Caucus.

"We have differences of opinion all the time, but I do not understand the Assembly members who oppose this," Cuomo said, "I have respect for Assembly member Glick and Weinstein and Didi Barrett, but I just don't see the possible rationale."

Glick took offense at the governor’s remarks. The longtime sponsor of the Reproductive Health Act -- which codified the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into law -- said she "finds it interesting" that she was singled out, along with Weinstein, the first female chair of the Ways and Means Committee in the Assembly’s history, and Barrett, the former Women’s Caucus chair.

"It’s an unfortunate lack of respect," Glick said.

Glick said she does not believe the bill offers enough protections for women, and she said there are already thousands of children in foster care who could be adopted.

Other opponents include longtime women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, and some religious organizations, including the Catholic Church.

Dennis Poust is a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, the lobby group for the church.

"We see this as fundamentally something that will exploit women’s bodies for the benefit, largely, of men," Poust said.

Poust said the practice turns babies into "commodities" and could lead to trafficking of the women and the children. He said it has an uncomfortable connection to the country’s legacy of slavery. He said the women, like slaves, will be treated as a form of "chattel."

"We’ll be literally mining their bodies for eggs," said Poust. "We’ll be creating a market for rent-a-wombs."

He said he’s not surprised, that, on this issue, the church and some feminist groups find "common ground."

"It’s about the fundamental dignity of women," he said.

He said the Catholic Church does not condone nonpaid, or altruistic, surrogacy, which is legal in New York. He said at least in that arrangement, there is less chance for exploitation.

Supporters say 47 other states allow paid gestational surrogacy, and that New York state is now an outlier.

Poust said that’s not completely accurate. Ten states have passed laws to regulate and allow the practice, but in many other states, the transactions exist in a gray area of the law, where they aren't explicitly prohibited or permitted.

The bills approved by the Senate also create a transgender youth suicide prevention task force.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.