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Sunday, May 10, 2009
memories of Baby M
A story on CBS Sunday Morning updating the status of surrogate parenting in the U.S. brought forth a flood of images.
Twenty-two years ago, I was a fledging reporter with the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey when we were ground zero for the story of stories. I've always thought of it as the flip side to abortion. And it was my immersion into pack journalism.
Melissa Stern is now 23 years old. Back then she was known only as Baby M, an infant at the center of a landmark custody battle revolving around surrogacy.
First a recap:
Mary Beth Whitehead of Brick Township, answered an ad in the APP to help infertile couples. Whitehead signed a $10,000 surrogacy contract with William and Elizabeth Stern of Tenafly, agreeing to be inseminated with his sperm and then give the baby up to the Sterns.
But Whitehead refused to turn over the child, whom she called Sarah, invoking a media circus worthy of a TV movie. Actually, I think it was made into one. The Brick police raided the home, returning the infant to the Sterns, whom they had named Melissa. Whitehead sued for custody.
Among all the ethical and cutting edge science questions, there was the “class” issue. Did the Sterns affluence, that of a biochemist and a pediatrician, give them undue advantage over Whitehead, a high school dropout married to a sanitation worker?
(an aside: Local newspaper reporters would chaff at calls the Whiteheads were “working class”. Her husband's salary of $35,000 was considerably more than any of us made at the time. So much for a college education.)
On March 31, 1987, Superior Court Judge Harvey Sorkow upheld the contract, terminating Whitehead’s parental rights and taking Elizabeth Stern to his chambers to adopt Melissa.
On that day, I joined the flood of media camped out on Whitehead’s lawn in the now familiar scene, awaiting that decision. I was petrified and overwhelmed, decidedly out of my league and eager to prove myself.
As the hometown paper, I felt special pressure. After all, her front lawn was less than 10 minutes from my own. I was on first name basis with many of those Brick cops she so detested. I knew my paper expected me to find some fresh angle to a story beaten to death, some way in through the barred door to the emotions inside.
I watched hot-shot broadcast media types so desperate they interviewed young children milling about on their bikes who parroting their parents’ words proclaimed: “a contact is a contract.”
Then the familiar “slap” of a newspaper hit the driveway, our newspaper.
The Press smartly paired me with one of out most talented and aggressive photographers who had been shadowing Whitehead for the length of the story. He immediately slapped the paper into my hands and shoved me toward the front door. I took a deep breath, swallowed and knocked. A beat later I was looking into an extraordinary pair of crystal blue eyes. She was indeed striking. Newspaper photos didn’t do her justice.
Mary Beth smiled and reached for the paper. She was gracious but unyielding. I failed in my mission to cross the threshold and the surging crowd behind me fell back, although Tom got off a few shots.
In the end, with a bit of insider info, I was able to slip away from the pack and interview the sister-in-law at her house several blocks away. It was a second hand story, but I was the only one with it, earning me a bylined story running along the bottom of the jump page. At least I didn’t shame myself.
Whitehead appealed by the way, and on Feb. 3, 1988, the New Jersey Supreme Court voided the contract and adoption, restoring Whitehead as Melissa’s mother with visitation rights. They ruled a fit mother cannot be forced to give away her baby. In this case, a contract was not a contract.
With medical advances, gestational carriers, who have no genetic relationship with the children they bear, have since replaced paid surrogates in most cases. But the shadow of Baby M lingers in New Jersey, barring such carriers from receiving more than medical and legal expenses; compelling them to give birth outside the state to collect a fee.