Ann and Chris Carda received a phone call two years ago that changed their lives. A woman from their Minnetonka church offered to carry a baby for the couple, who were unable to conceive on their own.

Amid their excitement, they discovered a campaign to tighten restrictions on surrogate pregnancies in Minnesota. Led by the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Minnesota Family Council, the campaign describes surrogacy as an immoral practice akin to “renting a womb.”

Surrogacy has become the latest frontier of reproductive rights at the State Capitol, with legislation expected to be introduced this year. Most of the opposition targets paid surrogacies, but some proposed changes would affect altruistic ones like the Cardas’.

“I respect that people have specific religious beliefs, but there’s many different views in the church,” said Carda, a faithful Episcopalian.

But surrogacy opponents argue that people don’t have the right to have children just because they want them.

“A child has a natural right to be conceived in the womb [of his mother] and raised in marriage,” said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, echoing church doctrine.

Restricting surrogacy has been a legislative priority for years for the Catholic Conference, the church’s public policy arm best known for leading an unsuccessful attempt to ban gay marriage in Minnesota. But the issue has gained momentum with a Legislative Commission on Surrogacy that met last fall and issued its final report in December, in time for the legislative session.

The Catholic conference created an anti-surrogacy website and hosts events, such as a screening of the film “Breeders: A Subclass of Women,” and sets the agenda for Minnesota’s more than 1 million Catholics on political issues. A recent candidate questionnaire asked this:

“Commercial gestational surrogacy turns economically and emotionally vulnerable women into a breeder class, subjecting their physical and psychological health to the whims of the wealthy. The practice also treats human life as a commodity that can be bought, sold, or eliminated when no longer desired. Do you support or oppose legally recognizing commercial gestational surrogacy contracts in Minnesota?”

It’s baffling to Melanie Beckmann, the St. Louis Park mother who carried the Cardas’ baby.

“I can kind of see how you might use that logic if you’ve never known anyone who went through [surrogacy],” said Beckmann. “But if anything, surrogacy is empowering. It is a gift that you are able to give to someone that will change their lives.”

Backers, critics

For the one in eight couples with fertility issues, surrogacy remains a relatively little-used option. In 2014, surrogate mothers had 2,236 babies, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology.

While some Christian critics insist surrogacy violates the sanctity of life, supporters argue the Virgin Mary could be considered a surrogate.

Among surrogacy’s strongest advocates are organizations for infertile couples, such as Resolve: The National Infertility Association.

“There are women with cancer, with uterine issues, with other medical conditions that make it impossible to carry a pregnancy,” said Julie Berman, director of the Minnesota Resolve chapter. “For them, this is huge.”

Generally the network of doctors, infertility clinics, attorneys and others who work with surrogate parents say that surrogacy is safe for both mother and child. And surrogate mothers say it’s gratifying for both parents-to-be and themselves. Fifty women submitted letters to the commission to that effect.

Besides the Catholic conference, the opposition here is led by the Center for Bioethics and Culture Network based in California, which produces documentaries with titles such as “Eggsploitation.”

The center’s founder Jennifer Lahl argues that surrogacy is dangerous for the woman’s mental and physical health and that children may have attachment issues.

Abortion also is a concern, said Atkins, as the pregnancy could result in a situation in which extra fertilized eggs implanted in a woman would be removed.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists submitted a letter to the legislative commission saying although there may be “isolated anecdotal reports” of medical complications, surrogates who participate in supervised arrangements that meet medical and mental health standards “face no increased risks to either their physical or mental health.”

How it works

After having her first child, Ann Carda had a medical problem that prevented future pregnancies. That’s when the wife of one of her husband’s co-workers gave her a surprise call.

“I told her I could be a surrogate,” recalled Beckmann, relaxing at the Cardas’ home recently. “This would be nine months of my life, but would change their lives forever.”

Stunned, Carda talked with her husband and the Rev. Katherine Lewis from St. David’s Episcopal Church in Minnetonka. After prayer, Carda accepted the offer.

Both the Cardas and Beckmann and her husband, Dan, underwent psychological tests. Health insurance was ironed out. Both parties were told to get their own attorneys to prevent conflicts of interest.

Lewis sent out an all-church letter, notifying members of this unusual pregnancy, offering to discuss questions or concerns. There were none.

Finally on Nov. 1, 2015, a strapping 9-pound baby was born, with both couples and the priest present at the birth.

“I think it has helped me become a better person,” reflected Carda. “After going through such lengths to have a child, you’re more aware of what a privilege it is to raise a child.”

Minnesota is unusual

Minnesota is among about 28 states without laws governing surrogacy. Unlike other states, surrogacy has been a persistent legislative issue in the state, said Barb Collura, president of the national Resolve and a Minnesota native. That’s why Resolve has a paid lobbyist here.

“We’re watching Minnesota closely,” said Collura. “We haven’t seen this kind of sustained attention, by a Catholic conference, anywhere in the country.”

Resolve has mixed reaction to the surrogacy commission’s recommendations made in December. Some already are common practice, such as requirements that surrogates should be 21, have had a previous child, and be U.S. citizens or legal residents.

But surrogacy backers are worried about other recommendations: that only a single embryo be transplanted, and that surrogacy contracts prevent parents-to-be from asking the surrogate to remove an embryo or fetus for reasons such as birth defects.

It also recommends capping compensation at $15,000, plus surrogate expenses, and requiring the Minnesota Department of Health to record the names of both surrogate and intended parents.

Any “intended parents” would need to have a documented medical need, and create an estate plan providing for custody and care of the child.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, co-chairwoman of the surrogacy commission, said she expected related legislation to be introduced this year. It wouldn’t be the first time. A different surrogacy bill was passed in 2008 but vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

One thing both sides can agree on is that any surrogacy arrangements should be safe for mother and child. Said Berman: “I hope at the end of the day, we can come together on things we agree on.”