The Rhode Island Legislature this afternoon passed a bill that updates the state’s parentage laws to provide stronger, more equitable protections for families formed via assisted reproduction.

Flag of Rhode Island

Rhode Island’s parentage statutes were last updated in the 1970s, and had failed to keep up with the reality of modern family formation. The new legislation, as GLAD explains, provides standard processes for married and unmarried nonbiological parents (including de facto parents) and parents through surrogacy to establish their parentage. It also gives courts ways to resolve competing claims of parentage and will “improve access, efficiency, and consistency in the courts.”

Notably, the legislation establishes a process for a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage (VAP), a way for parents using assisted reproduction to establish legal parentage for the nonbiological / nongestational parent simply by filling out a form. VAPs may be filed for no fee if they are done in the hospital right after the birth.

A VAP, according to the bill, “is equivalent to an adjudication of parentage of a child and confers upon the acknowledged parent all of the rights and duties of a parent.” In other words, this should be equivalent to a court order of parentage or a second-parent (confirmatory) adoption, but without the expense, home study, court appearance, or delay. GLAD Senior Staff Attorney Patience Crozier told me recently, “I think that VAPs have the force and effect of a decree of parentage and should be recognized in all jurisdictions.” (Having said that, VAPs are reasonably new and fairly untested, so you may wish to reach out to GLAD via their GLAD Answers hotline or check with your own lawyer if you’re considering them, even though a lawyer isn’t necessary to file them. See also my 2018 piece on VAPs.)

Governor Gina Raimondo (D) has yet to sign the bill, but her administration has supported it, so it seems likely she will. This is a major win for equality in the state, especially since the legislation failed to pass last fall.

Sara Watson, a physician and parent member of Rhode Islanders for Parentage Equality (RIPE), said in a statement:

When my partner Anna and I welcomed our son Eli in 2016, I was a legal stranger to him because our laws didn’t address the parentage of a child born to unmarried same-gender parents or conceived through fertility treatments. It took eight agonizing months to finalize Eli’s adoption. I couldn’t make legal decisions for Eli. I couldn’t add him on my insurance. I couldn’t pick him up from daycare. Rhode Island’s outdated law might even have denied me custody of Eli if something had happened to Anna before the adoption was finalized. For 4 years Anna and I have been advocating so families like ours never need to go through that same pain and fear. We’re grateful to our Representative Carol McEntee for championing this bill, and to all the House and Senate members who voted today to make sure no family ever has to experience what we did.

Crozier added in a statement, “We’re grateful to lead sponsors Senator Erin Lynch Prata and Representative Carol McEntee, and to Representative and Judiciary Chair Robert Craven for their commitment and work to make sure we passed a bill this session that makes Rhode Island parentage law clear, accessible and Constitutional, and removes unfair barriers that have made it harder for parents to protect their children.”

Let’s hope this establishes some momentum—Massachusetts and New Hampshire also have pending legislation that would make it easier for children created via assisted reproduction to have the security of two definitively legal parents, as I wrote earlier in the week. This slowly growing, state-by-state expansion of such laws may not have the glamour and visibility of marriage equality, but it is arguably just as important.