October 04, 1989 12:00 PM

She was a perfect little pram queen. Angel curls, delft-blue eyes, chubby cheeks that just begged to be kissed. But destiny had reserved a strenuous role for Baby M. She was born into a decade that brought new hope—and new anxieties—to women who could not have children. Thanks to biotechnology, infertile couples were offered a bazaar of pregnant possibilities: artificial insemination, gynecological surgery, in vitro fertilization and, most problematic of all, the services of a surrogate mother. Risks arrived with the technology, however, and it was the fate of Baby M to personify them. Before she could say her own name, little Melissa was enshrined as the symbol of new and unnerving confrontations between culture and nature, love and money.

Melissa was the prize in the decade’s most controversial custody case. Her father is William Stern, a New Jersey biochemist whose wife, Elizabeth, showed symptoms of multiple sclerosis that made pregnancy perilous. Her mother is Mary Beth Whitehead, a housewife who in return for a $10,000 fee agreed to accept insemination by Stern’s sperm and to relinquish all rights to the child when it was born. But when her time came, Whitehead was overwhelmed by maternal emotions run amok. Refusing the fee, she threatened to kill her baby and herself if Stern pursued them, then fled with Melissa to Florida. Police eventually returned the baby to the Sterns, but Whitehead swiftly sued to get her back.

The Baby M trial raised large and disturbing issues. Is a woman who bears a child for another woman a surrogate mother or just a surrogate uterus? Is she renting her womb or selling her child? If surrogacy is sanctioned, will society develop a breeder class of poor women employed by the rich as incubators? With a surrogacy rate that quintupled in a single decade, are we entering an era of depersonalized reproduction?

New Jersey’s Supreme Court dealt sensitively with the basic issues. It confirmed a lower court’s award of custody to the Sterns, but restored Whitehead’s right to spend time with her daughter and ruled that surrogacy agreements are legal only if no money is involved and if the woman who bears the child can change her mind and keep it. The court also noted that as biotechnology continues to explode, new laws are needed to cope with the social fallout. Laws are also needed to regulate the venal “surrogacy pimps” who collect fat fees for running their cynical auction of the innocents. But laws won’t help little Melissa unlearn the misleading lesson of her double life: that to be loved means to be subdivided. To erase that glitch, her three battle-scarred parents will need the wisdom of Solomon.

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