MCC: Surrogacy commission, drug sentencing reform among legislative wins

| May 27, 2016 | 1 Comment

The establishment of a surrogacy commission, passage of drug sentencing reform legislation and withdrawal of a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide are among the victories the Minnesota Catholic Conference is celebrating following the end of the Minnesota State Legislature’s 11-week session May 23.

“A lot of good things were done this session, even in divided government,” said Jason Adkins, MCC executive director, referring to the dynamic of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a DFL-controlled Senate.

That dynamic “can be an important opportunity to advance legislation that really serves the common good,” he said. “The divided government prevents some of the more partisan or ideologically driven pieces of legislation from moving forward. Given that gridlock, . . . it’s important for people to find places where they can build common ground on what they can agree on, and when there is agreement reached, it’s a real powerful symbol of bipartisanship.”

He added: “If the Catholic Conference can play an important role in building those bridges and bringing people together, and identifying ways where there is common ground, then we’ve really added value to the whole public discussion.”

Important steps for state

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, stands on the steps of the Minnesota Capitol in a Catholic Spirit file photo. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, stands on the steps of the Minnesota Capitol in a Catholic Spirit file photo. Dianne Towalski/The Catholic Spirit

That bipartisan cooperation led to the passage of several pieces of MCC-backed legislation, including one establishing a surrogacy commission, which MCC listed as a top priority at the beginning of the session.

As advocates for public policy on behalf of the Catholic Church in Minnesota, MCC has long supported creating a commission to study the issue of commercial gestational surrogacy, or the practice of a women contracting to become pregnant and gestate a baby to be raised by someone else, often a party previously unknown to her. Minnesota law does not provide a legal framework to “sell your baby,” Adkins said, which is why the fertility treatment industry is eager for the state to adopt regulations to protect surrogacy contracts and the industry’s investment in the state.

“We are deeply troubled by this, and we said the only way that Minnesota is going to be able to look at this rationally is if we create some sort of legislative mechanism, like a commission, to study it in further detail,” he said. “The normal legislative process of a few hearings in each house is simply not sufficient to properly address public policy questions that have deep ethical implications, but also have to deal with new and emerging technologies, and have a strong financial component to them.”

Adkins also praised the passage of drug sentencing reform legislation, calling it the “most important criminal justice reform in decades in Minnesota.”

The legislation was a way to ensure the state’s drug laws keep up with changes in the drug trade while justly punishing drug criminals, he said.

At the same time, it provides addicts and non-violent offenders the things they need “to be restored to the community,” Adkins said, such as addiction treatment.

“It was inspiring to see prosecutors, law enforcement, criminal defense attorneys, justice advocacy groups come together — groups that are normally opposed on a number of public policy questions — and really find ways to improve our drug sentencing laws,” he said. He also credited lawmakers who were willing to take the political risk of being tagged as “soft on crime” in an election year.

“It’s really important in the Year of Mercy to be talking about the way the role of mercy can be extended to all areas of our life, public policy included,” he added. “What our advocacy did was really help drive the moral imperative behind making this change.”

Also notable was the author’s withdrawal of a bill to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Minnesota from committee consideration. Adkins expects the issue to be raised again next year, and MCC is continuing to work with a diverse coalition of physician-assisted suicide opponents aiming to increase awareness and education about the issue.

Adkins considers physician-assisted suicide to be a form of “false mercy,” as advocates cloak the position as one of compassion or dignity.

“Minnesota is the state with the best health care in the nation, and perhaps even most of the world, and for us to say we’re going to let people die because of their fear that they have no other choices” is wrong, Adkins said.

“We want to say, no, there is a hand to be there, to walk with you, so real compassion — to walk with or suffer with someone, to journey together,” he added. “We want to create a state that focuses on journeying together with people and walking with them, not simply sending them home with a vial of pills to die.”

He said the showing of opposition to the legislation at the March hearing held by the House’s Minnesota Senate Health, Human Services and Housing Committee was impressive and built momentum for fighting the legislation.

MFIP boost among misses

While some Capitol-watchers have lamented the failure of the Legislature to pass in its final hours a bonding bill to fund roads, bridges and other infrastructure, prompting discussions of a possible summer special session, Adkins said the evaluation of the Legislature’s outcome depends on one’s perspective.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing that government isn’t spending money,” he said.

“It seems to me that there are some important needs in regards to some building projects, some capital investments that could be made, some expenditures on public transportation, but simply the absence of a deal is not in and of itself necessarily a travesty,” he said.

With a $900 million state budget surplus, however, Adkins is disappointed that increasing funding for the Minnesota Family Investment Program never gained the traction he had hoped, especially when the effort had bipartisan support. The welfare program for families hasn’t increased its cash grant in 30 years, essentially “trying to overcome 2016 poverty with 1986 public assistance,” Adkins said.

“We think that especially in a time of surplus that our spending priorities should be rooted in a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable, and they should have the option of first claim on our resources,” he said.

At the beginning of the legislative session, MCC listed among its priorities school choice-related tax credits. Two of them were nearly included in an omnibus bill passed at the end of the session, but they did not make the final version.

Despite their exclusion from the bill, Adkins called their momentum “incredibly exciting.”

“Those pieces of legislation got further than they had before. They were in the final deals and then got traded away for other things. That was incredibly disappointing, but we can be heartened by the relationships that were built among non-traditional allies and the outreach,” he said.

He added: “We think that our conversations with [Gov. Mark Dayton] have helped him understand the imperative behind giving kids more opportunities, how nonpublic schools are changing lives, [and] how that family setting that characterizes so many Catholic schools can really be a game changer in a child’s life.”

In April, Dayton visited Ascension Catholic School in Minneapolis along with Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Bishop Andrew Cozzens. Ascension is among Catholic schools whose families would likely benefit from school choice tax credits.

“We’re excited to continue the conversation with him [Dayton] this year,” Adkins said, noting MCC’s involvement in Opportunity for All Kids, or OAK, a coalition advocating for school choice legislation in the state.

Looking ahead

MCC is now focused on the 2017 legislative session, which will follow the 2016 election in November. All 134 seats in the state’s House and all 67 seats in the Senate are up for election in 2016.

This summer, MCC will also be closely following the work of the gestational surrogacy commission, which is expected to begin meeting in July and file a report to the Legislature in December. There is widespread misunderstanding, including among Catholics, about the threats commercial surrogacy pose to the common good, Adkins said.

“The surrogacy industry and the media continuously presents this narrative that these arrangements are always positive and beneficial for both parties and a wonderful experience, . . . but there are all other sorts of stories that come out that show that there are real problems and serious concerns, not just with regards to the well-being of women, but the potential commodification of children,” he said. “We’re excited that this commission has been passed so we can really dig in and legislators will have the information they need to make good public policy decisions surrounding this issue.”

MCC will also continue to its “ending political homelessness” campaign, which aims to help Catholics find their place in influencing public policy, and building its Catholic Advocacy Network at http://www.mncc.org.

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  • Charles C.

    So, if I understand it correctly, the MCC managed to get a study group appointed and reduced sentences for drug crimes.

    The article mentioned that those were “among” its wins. I hope the other wins were something substantial, because those two aren’t very impressive at all. A “study group” is going to talk and talk and talk, and it may eventually come up with a non-binding recommendation. The crime bill was, according to the article, something that every group wanted anyway. It sounds like the MCC was marching along with the crowd.

    Oh well, maybe next year will be different.