Marla Neufeld was in a maternity class when the teacher came around the u-shaped table to check on her. The class was learning how to change a diaper and bottle feed, and the teacher asked how far she was along.
“I’m 30 weeks, with twins,” Neufeld said. Then she watched the instructor’s eyes drop down to her stomach, no paunch in sight.
It was far from the oddest moment Neufeld had during the birth of her twin boys. She and her husband, Jason, had tried for years on their own. After fertility treatments didn’t work, they signed a contract with a surrogate. The number of uncomfortable conversations that followed would be hard to count.
“People tell you how lucky you are not to have morning sickness, and I don’t think they know how hard that is for you to hear after years of trying to get pregnant,” Neufeld says.
But beyond just awkward banter, Neufeld discovered a rapidly evolving set of laws and procedures that govern surrogacy. Neufeld is a transactional law specialist with the law firm Greenspoon Marder in Fort Lauderdale, and she found herself fascinated with the system. Parents are likely to spend upwards of six figures on the process, and good legal work could make the difference in assuring everything goes smoothly.
Before her boys were born, Neufeld went to a conference for lawyers who practice surrogacy law and discovered few large law firms wade into that specialty. Neufeld prepped a presentation for the partners of her firm, who immediately agreed to create a new practice group. Five years later, she has handled 300-plus cases in reproductive law. She could fill a jetliner with all the kids she has helped be born. She gets birth announcements and sees updates on Facebook of those babies, some of whom are now starting school.
“It’s just awesome to see that,” she says. “It’s just very rewarding to think you helped start that for someone.”
The process is far from easy. Neufeld recommends prospective parents hire an agency. The agency will set them up with prospective surrogates and oversees the process. Neufeld’s work begins with the contract that the surrogate and parents sign and then continues throughout the embryo transfer, the pregnancy and the birth, with paperwork at fundamental points being the key to it going smoothly.
At the start, both sides must agree to some key rules. Typically, the surrogate has no biological connection to the baby, since the parents usually create the embryo or there is use of other donated genetic material. So before the birth, Neufeld goes to a family court judge and asks for what’s known as a pre-birth order, which instructs hospital employees on what to do after the birth, among other directives. Included is when parental rights fall to the parents, not the surrogate—for example the parents are the first ones to hold the baby after birth, like in Neufeld’s surrogacy journey.
There’s also simple day-to-day arrangements that must be agreed upon, like the surrogate’s diet, and down to simple things such as staying away from hair dye and cat litter. The contract might also agree to reimburse the surrogate for missed work and childcare if she’s ordered on bed rest.
The process can also be fraught with ethical questions. If it turns out the fetus suffers from a severe cleft palate, or down syndrome, or a birth defect, both sides must decide whether abortion is an option. Even that can be complicated—if the surrogate later goes back on the agreement to abort, a court cannot force her, since she has sole consent to her body.
Those worst-case scenarios remain rare in surrogacy law, Neufeld says, but it’s not hard for prospective parents to get hung up on them. “The horror stories, you have to know that they’re possible, but they are not typical,” she says.
Since Florida’s laws are friendly to surrogacy, Neufeld often works with parents from around the world. States like New York forbid parents from compensating surrogates. Florida law allows surrogates to be paid for their reasonable living, legal, medical and psychological expenses.
Right after a birth through a surrogate, Neufeld returns to family court to get a post-birth order to make sure the birth certificate bears the parents’ names. “The parents often call me before calling their families,” Neufeld says. For life as a reproductive rights lawyer, it’s always a happy moment—even at court. “The judges are used to dealing with divorces, so they’re always happy to see me,” she says.
When pregnancy is difficult to achieve for one of her clients, Neufeld says she often can calm them down by recalling her own story of surrogacy. It started when she and Jason posted an expecting announcement on Facebook—Jason holding two bags of ice and Neufeld a sign that said “baby” (you know: ice, ice, baby). Few parents of a surrogate baby post announcements and hold showers, Neufeld says, leaving them feeling left out of traditions. When she tells clients about her announcement or the shower she had, it can be a recognition that they ought to embrace the non-traditional birth of their child.
Neufeld also shares tales of how hard it can be. Six weeks before her boys were due, Neufeld got a call from her surrogate, who said as calmly as possible: “I think the boys are coming.” The surrogate lived in Orlando, while the Neufelds are in Aventura. They drove straight there. With legal documents in hand, they were allowed into the delivery room, making it within minutes of the birth.
Now it’s a story Neufeld can tell to her clients as a way to show that the process might be tough, still fraught with paperwork and legal filings, but hopefully it ends with new life. Along with the Facebook posts she sees from her clients, Neufeld now has posts of her own from her boys’ first day of school.
Sometimes she looks at her sons, and she can’t help but think back to what it took to have them. Neufeld says, “It really isn’t hard for me to tap into those emotions. They are always right there with me.”