Jay Timmons, his husband, Rick Olson, and their 3-year-old son, Jacob — born with the help of a surrogate — are not the typical nuclear family celebrated by Virginia Republicans, particularly by the conservative base.
But their struggle to secure legal rights as Jacob’s parents — which included a costly, year-long legal battle — inspired the GOP-controlled Virginia legislature last week to pass legislation that will make it easier for gay, straight or single parents to have children using donated embryos.
They got help from an unlikely ally — former Republican governor George Allen, who convinced some conservative Republicans to defy far-right critics in an election year and join with Democrats to approve the bill.
“You’d hate to see what they went through happen to any other families,” said Allen, who was governor from 1994 to 1998.
It helped that many lawmakers knew Timmons as Allen’s longtime chief of staff, president of the pro-business National Manufacturers Association and a loyal Republican.
“When Jay explained it to me, I just thought it was common sense,” said Del. Jason S. Miyares (R-Virginia Beach), who met his wife working on Allen’s 2000 Senate campaign, which Timmons ran. “Jacob is alive because of the love of Jay and Rick, and it’s amazing.”
With both chambers narrowly controlled by the GOP, the bill needed the backing of all Democrats and a few Republicans to pass. In the end, 13 Republicans in the House and nine in the Senate voted yes.
Supporters say the bill, which was sponsored by the couple’s delegate, Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax), makes technical changes to streamline and clarify the surrogacy process and encourage would-be parents to use existing embryos.
Opponents, such as the Family Foundation of Virginia, say the bill encourages the creation of new embryos with no genetic link to their parents, causing “serious long-term damage to our society,” and will lead to the proliferation of so-called designer babies.
Colleen Quinn, a Richmond-based expert in adoption and surrogacy law, disagrees.
She worked with Sullivan to update the 1994 surrogacy statute and called the bill a step forward for Virginia while noting the state still lags behind most others.
The bill replaces “husband” and “wife” with the gender-neutral “spouse” to reflect the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage, allows single people to use a gestational carrier — a woman who carries a couple’s fertilized embryo to term — and confirms that only a carrier with a genetic link to the embryo can void a contract, she said.
The bill also eliminates the need for parents to go through the costly adoption process after the birth of a child from a donated embryo, which she said could have saved Timmons and Olson from the stress of their year-long legal battle.
Olson knew from the start of their relationship in 1991 that Timmons, an only child, wanted lots of kids — as many as 10 — but as a gay man in the United States, Olson assumed that would never happen.
After they married in 2008, they began to seriously consider their options, found a surrogate in California and became parents to two daughters, who are biologically related to one of them. Today, C.J. is 9 and loves Taekwondo; Ellie, 7, is a budding gymnast.
“We believed our family was complete,” Timmons testified in Richmond with his family beside him. “But God had other ideas for us, thankfully.”
When friends offered to donate two of their embryos from previous attempts to have children, Timmons and Olson accepted and found a gestational surrogate in Wisconsin, where they thought the law would make the process straightforward.
They were thrilled in June 2015, when a Wisconsin judge who was temporarily sitting at Dane County Circuit Court, granted them interim parental rights, which would become permanent once Jacob was born.
But when Gov. Scott Walker (R) appointed a permanent judge, a blur of objections, motions and delays followed.
Olson left his job of 16 years at Capital One to manage the case and care for their daughters and Jacob, who was born on Aug. 17, 2015.
Nine months after the original order, the judge took away their parental rights, suggested they violated “human trafficking laws” and terminated the surrogate’s parental rights, making Jacob a ward of the state, Timmons said.
Sullivan, the Virginia delegate and a father of four, got the idea for his bill by following Timmons’s Facebook posts about his family’s ordeal.
Allen, a conservative who once vocally opposed same-sex marriage, made calls on behalf of Timmons and Olson, whom he considers family.
Republican Dels. Tim Hugo (Fairfax), David E. Yancey (Newport News) and Roxann L. Robinson (Chesterfield) — all expecting to face competitive races this November — joined with lawmakers from Southwest Virginia and Virginia Beach to vote in favor.
Allen said Republicans who voted for the surrogacy bill showed courage at a time when gerrymandered districts force lawmakers from both parties to extremes out of fear of primary challenges.
“Politically, it would be easy to vote against it,” Allen said, “but they genuinely feel it’s a pro-life bill. I just appreciate people who will think for themselves.”
Allen and others said it was “pro-life” in the sense that it would bring to life some of the estimated 1 million embryos in storage across the country.
“For me, it is a right-to-life bill,” Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott) said. He called opponents of the bill “misguided in that particular area.”
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said she worries the bill will encourage would-be parents to create new embryos for surrogates to carry rather than using existing supplies.
“I think proponents of the bill intentionally clouded the issue and attempted to make it sound pro-life to support this policy, which it is not,” she said.
Timmons called the pushback “disgusting and disingenuous” but said he was “extraordinarily proud” of his state.
“Virginia has always been the mother of freedom,” he said, “and by passing Jacob’s Law, [the legislature] has proven that one more time.”