Although Paige Harris was never able to meet her mother Katherine in the flesh, the very least she might expect is that her parent was acknowledged as such on her birth certificate.
But this was not possible, until the advent of the Paige Harris Birth Registration Bill, a Private Bill introduced by Labour MP Lousia Wall, and written just for Paige.
Katherine died in late 2019 due to complications from a lung transplant, before she and her husband Kyle Harris could officially adopt Paige who was born a few months later, in March 2020 through surrogacy.
Adoption is currently how parents who have children born via surrogacy become the legal parents of their own genetic offspring. There is a law planned to improve this.
However, under current law, you cannot adopt if you are deceased. So while Kyle Harris’ name is on Paige’s birth certificate as father, Katherine’s is not.
Waikato-based Harris has been battling to fulfill his promise to his wife that he’d get her name on Paige’s birth certificate, with the help of a public petition that garnered around 50,000 signatures.
Almost two years on from Paige’s birth, that campaign has reached its culmination with this Private Bill.
“So this bill seeks to address what we would call an anomaly, and ensure Katherine Harris’ name is recorded on her daughter Paige Harris’ birth certificate,” Wall explained.
“There is a gap in the general law and I guess the position that the family found themselves in was setting a precedent, and exposing the fact that we do not have that fit-for-purpose law with regard to surrogacy, and the requirement within the context of surrogacy for an adoption to happen.”
This legislation follows what the MP described as an unnecessarily difficult process for the family.
A few years ago Renee and Josh Johnson had offered to carry a baby for their friends through IVF (in-vitro fertilisation), and that part of the process went smoothly.
But later, Kyle Harris had already been through enough with the death of his wife, before the official record of Paige’s birth dealt another blow.
“The certificate came and next to Mother it had “NOT RECORDED” in caps, bold and underlined,” Josh Johnson explained.
“So that was a bit of a kick in the guts for us, especially for Kyle and also Katherine’s family as well.”
This didn’t sit right with Johnson. Wanting to help his friend to address this anomaly, he wrote to Justice and Internal Affairs officials among others.
“This is where I get really frustrated. The reply I got was ‘sorry, the law does not allow for this’. And that was it. There was no discussion to be entered into, no pathway forward. Nothing, it was just no. Closed case.”
Further communications with the Government came to nothing.
Things started moving when a story by TV3 journalist Patrick Gower garnered significant public interest.
“It was literally the night after the story aired, Lousia emailed saying ‘I know a way forward’,” Johnson said.
“I can’t see why parliament can’t come together to support the request of this family. Kyle Harris is the promoter of his private bill and he needed an MP to support him through that process, so I’ve been incredibly blessed to have been asked to work with the family and resolve the issue,” Wall said.
“It’s very clear through engagement with the Department of Internal Affairs - who is the ministry that will support this Bill as it progresses - that they had a dilemma themselves.
“I’ve had an email exchange with Registrar-General (of Birth, Deaths and Marriages) Jeff Montgomery, and the fact that we’ve managed to find a solution where they couldn’t assist (previously), they’re really supportive of us ensuring that we pass this Bill as soon as possible.”
Surrogacy law reform needed
When it hit the chamber the Bill had support right across Parliament.
National MP Todd Muller said that when Louisa Wall brought the Bill to his attention he had to read it twice because he could barely believe the rules didn’t allow for Katherine’s name to be on her daughter’s birth certificate.
“Surely in 2020, when you are the biological parents and you have a tremendous partner, if you like, in a surrogacy journey, there should be no reason that your role, be it past or present in terms of being the biological mother or father of this child, should not be able to be captured in an official document,” Muller reasoned.
Other legislation recently introduced to parliament aims to help with that. Tamati Coffey’s Improving Arrangements for Surrogacy Bill, looks to ensure such gaps are closed, including proposing that if a child is born by surrogacy and there is a surrogacy order, there is no requirement for adoption.
The need for reform and modernisation of surrogacy laws was acknowledged during debate on the Private Bill by the Greens’ Teanau Tuiono.
“When I look at this, I really thought about it from the perspective of whakapapa and the importance of whakapapa and how that can play a really crucial part in shaping the identity of our children, of our babies. It helps to centre them in this world, it helps them to understand their connections with their close-knit family but also with their wider families as well,” he said.
“For me, that's what whānau is all about, and I acknowledge what Louisa Wall was saying earlier, how our laws are archaic and not fit for purpose in terms of our modern families, but I would also say that sometimes it's not fit for purpose for the ways that families have always been, the way that families have been connected in different ways. It's not just about families; it's about whānau and what that means for our tamariki mokopuna.”
While Coffey’s Bill is yet to have its first reading, a more direct solution was required for the Harris’ problem, in the form of this Private Bill.
Todd Muller noted the effectiveness of such a bill to address a specific problem that the general law has proven inadequate to address.
“It's quite rare to get something that is reaching into an individual family who has had to go through a very painful experience because of a rule that is, by any rational measure, archaic and outdated, and have it brought to this House for it to be individually adjusted for that person.”
After the Bill passed its first reading, Josh Johnson paid tribute to Louisa Wall, and took stock of the journey to this point.
“I sat there watching that first reading, I was just in tears,” he said.
“It’s pretty much job done from here, in terms of all the pushing and fighting and clawing to get it there. So now it’s there, (I’m) really chuffed with it, eh.
“What it does mean now is that we have set a precedent, and if in the meantime, between now and Tamati’s bill hopefully going through, someone in the future is covered by that, there’s precedent there now.”
The Paige Harris Birth Registration Bill will now be considered by the Governance and Administration Committee.
Wall is seeking an expedited process for the Bill, and hopes to have it concluded and Katherine’s name on Paige Harris’ birth certificate before she turns 2 in late March.