When most Canadians picture criminals, a couple trying to have a baby probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.
But under Canadian law, that’s exactly what couples who pay a surrogate to carry their child to term are deemed to be, and one Liberal MP wants to change that.
READ MORE: Surrogacy in Canada: What you need to know
In a press conference on Parliament Hill on Tuesday, Montreal-area Liberal MP Anthony Housefather announced he will table a private member’s bill this spring that will try to decriminalize both the paying of surrogates in Canada as well as the ban on paying for sperm and egg donations by individuals trying to conceive.
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LISTEN: Anthony Housefather joins 640 Toronto
“Canadian couples should not have to go to the United States and pay to have their baby,” said Housefather, who represents the Montreal riding of Mount Royal.
“There’s no reason we should have to do that when we could do that at home.”
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Section 5 of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act bans payments to surrogates or the purchasing of donor eggs or sperm as prohibited activities.
The act also lays out possible sentences of between four to 10 years imprisonment or a maximum of $250,000 or $500,000 for a person found guilty of violating those sections.
However, surrogacy has been receiving increased attention in recent years as more Canadians seek out non-traditional methods of having a child, such as same-sex couples or individuals who struggle with infertility.
There are two types of surrogates: traditional and gestational.
Traditional surrogates typically conceive a child using their own egg and donor sperm from the individual or couple who are intended to be the child’s parents.
A baby born via a traditional surrogate is thus genetically related to its surrogate mother.
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Gestational surrogates are artificially impregnated using both a donor egg and donor sperm, and the baby they ultimately give birth to carries no genetic relation to the surrogate.
In Canada, those known as intended parents — those for whom the surrogate carries the child — can cover the costs incurred by the surrogate during her pregnancy.
These can include medical costs, vitamins, maternity clothing and related items.
What they cannot do is compensate the surrogate for the service of carrying their child — doing that, whether in the form of cash payment or gifts, puts intended parents squarely in the crosshairs for potential criminal prosecution.
Because of that, the pool of surrogates in Canada is much smaller than the pool in countries like the United States, where surrogates can be compensated for the service of carrying a child.
No official numbers exist to calculate the size of the surrogacy market in the United States, but estimates put the number of children born via surrogacy there each year in the thousands, with surrogates being compensated between $20,000 and $40,000 for the service itself in addition to other costs.
Firm numbers in Canada are similarly hard to come by, but one Toronto-area fertility clinic told Global News in 2016 that roughly 150 babies were born through its surrogate program each year.
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Julie Dzerowicz, Liberal MP for Davenport, was among several Liberal MPs who stood in support of Housefather at the press conference on Tuesday and said that the costs could be something the government could regulate in Canada to help make it more accessible for couples here.
“I want this to be affordable for everyone,” Dzerowicz said.
What remains to be seen is whether the bill has the support of the rest of the party.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made championing the rights of women and gender equality a hallmark of his government.
Earlier this year, he announced changes to Canada’s parental leave programs to allocate an additional five weeks of “use-it-or-lose-it” leave aimed at getting more fathers to take parental leave and reduce the burden and stigma that taking parental leave can carry for working mothers.
But the fact the legislation is coming forward from a member of his caucus, not a member of his cabinet, raises questions about why the government would not simply table the bill itself if decriminalizing payments to surrogates was a priority it wanted to ensure could pass.
Ottawa-West Nepean MP Anita Vandenbeld, chair of the Liberal women’s caucus, said the bill fits with the government’s stated focus on supporting gender equality and reproductive rights for women, and that the criminal restrictions under the current legislation are ripe for reform.
“We need to be clear here that assisted human reproduction is the one area of law where we are still criminalizing women’s bodies,” she said.
Housefather was asked about whether he has received assurances of support for his bill and did not specifically say.
However, he hinted conversations he has had with caucus members so far have been positive.
“I’m hoping that just like the rest of our caucus who are not in cabinet and have shown great support for this law,” he said, “our cabinet colleagues will as well.”