Is the Womb a Rentable Space?

An emotional court case centers on surrogate births

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In fact, the phenomenon of surrogate birth is as old as the Old Testament tale of Sarah, who arranged for her husband Abraham to father a child with their servant Hagar. That coupling, which produced Ishmael, also ended in hard feelings. Only in recent years did the practice become institutionalized at a few clinics around the country. Dr. Richard Levin, director of Surrogate Parenting Associates, Inc., in Louisville, believes that at least 100 children a year have been born through the process since 1979. "Maybe five or six have gone bad in terms of custody battles," he says. "But they get such enormous attention that the issue gets distorted."

With the spread of surrogates, opposition is spreading as well. Last week the National Committee for Adoption came out in favor of a ban on the practice. "It commercializes a very private thing," says Committee President William Pierce. "It should not take place at all." Other critics believe that surrogate contracts should be reformed to reflect the laws of most states regarding adoption, which offer the natural mother several days or weeks to change her mind. Guidelines adopted last week by the American Fertility Society, a group of specialists in reproductive biology, called for increased study of the psychological effects of the surrogate process on parents and child.

The Baby M. case has been further complicated by Whitehead's contention that the baby may have been fathered by her husband, a garbage-truck driver, though he had a vasectomy prior to her pregnancy. Her attorney, Alan Grosman, | also suggests that his client, "a full-time mother," would make a better mother than Mrs. Stern, whom he called "a career woman." The Sterns, in turn, claim to have tapes of a phone call Whitehead made to them while in Florida in which she threatened to commit suicide and harm the child, a charge she denies.

While the case goes on, Whitehead will be permitted to make supervised visits with her daughter on the neutral territory of a local children's home. "People treat it like we are fighting over a car," she complains. "But she's not a possession, she's a part of me." For his part, Stern says that the custody fight "is something I had to do as a father. All the pain has been worth it." Now it remains for the court to sort out the difficulties that arise when the right angles of the law meet the complex configurations of the heart.

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