June 12, 1978 12:00 PM

Detroit lawyer Noel Keane, 39, is no stranger to fatherhood. He and his wife, Kathy, have two young sons of their own. Still, bouncing other people’s babies has become a startling new dimension of his law practice. These infants are unique because they are the product of surrogate mothering—a term that America is going to hear a lot more about. It works this way in the case of a couple who are childless because the wife is barren. The surrogate agrees to be artificially inseminated with the husband’s sperm and carry the baby from conception to birth.

Keane’s first clients were an Oakland County (Mich.) couple whom Keane will identify only as “Al and Betty.” When they first came to him two years ago, Keane admits, “I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.” His research, however, uncovered two similar cases, in Michigan and California. At Al and Betty’s request, Keane ran advertisements in three Michigan college newspapers to find a female of “Caucasian background” willing to be artificially fertilized.

As it turns out, the bizarre episode has had a happy ending. On April 26 Al and Betty were presented by the surrogate mother with a son, Albert Jr., weighing 10 lbs. 11 oz. at birth. The couple was then able to claim the baby as their own through a family-related adoption.

“It really sounds weird,” Keane admits, “until you meet the people involved, and then you realize that it is a logical solution to a problem. People want babies, and if they can’t have them or adopt them, they’ll find a way to get them.”

Keane’s want ad generated considerable publicity. While appearing on a local radio show with Al and Betty, who explained their plight and openly solicited a surrogate mother, Keane had a caller who announced, “We’ve already done it!”

“We” turned out to be George, 28, and Debbie, 24, a Detroit-area couple who became parents with the help of their best friend, Sue, 23. (The three have never disclosed their last names.) The women worked in the same bank, and Sue, who had been neglected as a child, says, “Debbie was my first friend.” When Debbie was taken to the hospital for a hysterectomy, Sue was beside her. She knew the couple had been trying for four years to have a baby; now Debbie’s operation permanently ruled out a child. Keane recalls, “There were no white babies available locally for adoption.” Sue made up her mind. “I want to have a child for you,” she told them.

For days the three of them talked it over, and the couple finally accepted the idea as long as George, not a fourth party, was the father. But Michigan doctors, fearing a malpractice suit, refused to artificially inseminate Sue. Undaunted, Debbie found instructions in the Reader’s Digest Family Health Guide. She injected George’s sperm into Sue with a syringe. “It was a bull’s-eye the first time,” Debbie says proudly.

Sue went on maternity leave and stayed in the house with Debbie and George. “Come here and feel your baby,” Sue told them excitedly the first time it stirred in her womb. Last January Debbie accompanied Sue to the delivery room where, after 12 hours of labor, a 6 lb. 10½ oz. baby, named Elizabeth Ann, was delivered by cesarean section.

“It was a great experience,” said Sue, who agreed to appear on Phil Donahue’s TV talk show with Debbie, George and the baby less than a month later. But, Sue added, “I don’t have any maternal feelings. I always thought of it as their child.” Said Debbie, “I have a lot of respect and admiration for Sue. I don’t have any jealousy at all.” Some day George and Debbie will tell Elizabeth Ann that she is adopted. “It will be up to Sue,” said George, “to say that she is the mother.” (Sue, who is still a virgin, admits, “I’m not ready for marriage or motherhood.”)

Keane concedes that surrogate motherhood raises serious legal, medical and moral dilemmas. What is the liability of the contracting couple if the substitute mother suffers medical complications? Probably none, Keane thinks, since she volunteered willingly to have the baby. If the surrogate mother decides to keep the child? Keane says the court would probably uphold her claim, and the father could be responsible for child support.

Precedents are few, although proxy motherhood goes back at least to the Old Testament, when Sarah arranged to have a maidservant bear a child for her husband Abraham. In modern times the situation that seems most comparable is artificial insemination of a woman by donor sperm. “Medical students have been getting paid for years for their semen,” Keane says, noting that several universities have set up sperm banks.

Nonetheless, because Michigan law forbids payment to the mother of a child placed for adoption, Keane worried about the fees (ranging from $200 to $10,000) asked by the more than 200 women who answered his ad. From Juvenile Court Judge James Lincoln, he obtained an out-of-court opinion that a surrogate mother could not be paid, except for nominal expenses. Suddenly the supply of surrogates evaporated. (In the case of Al and Betty, Keane says no fee was paid; Sue bore George’s child for Debbie out of “love and friendship.”) Meanwhile the demand for surrogates is rising. “I’m for the state controlling this,” says Keane, who with a fellow attorney has gone to court for a new interpretation of the law governing surrogate fees.

Keane himself is the offspring of Irish Catholic parents in Dearborn. A former schoolteacher, he put himself through the University of Detroit Law School at night. Supposing he and his wife had not been able to have a family—would he use a surrogate? “I never would have thought of it on my own,” he says. “But now I’d do it in a minute.”

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