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Baby M and her parents

ANOTHER shoe has dropped in the wrenching Baby M case. A New Jersey judge has granted Mary Beth Whitehead Gould broad rights to visit the daughter she bore under contract for William and Elizabeth Stern but then decided she wanted to keep. The Sterns have said they will not appeal the ruling, which, like many child-custody arrangements, details elaborately which holidays little Melissa is to spend with the Sterns and which with Mrs. Whitehead Gould.

Like almost everything connected with this case, the ruling is an unsatisfactory improvisation. It shows the conflict between what may be best public policy and what may be best for the child.

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The public-policy question here is whether ``surrogate mothering,'' particularly on a commercial basis, is to be encouraged. Mindful though we are of the private misery of those who want but do not have children of ``their own,'' our answer is no. The Baby M case is being repeated elsewhere. If those who would contract out their childbearing see how the Sterns are having to adjust, they might think twice, which might not be a bad thing.

It is certainly hard, however, to imagine what Melissa - now two years old - will make of this curious custody arrangement. Can it be in her best interest? One might argue that the Sterns offer Melissa a much more affluent, cultured, stable environment in which to grow up than does the Whitehead Gould family. In this case, surely, one might say, the biological father's claim is stronger.

But it will always be so. Would-be fathers who can afford a surrogacy contract could be expected to have the advantage - economically and otherwise - over the women they engage to bear their children. To accept commercial surrogacy is to invite a diminution of the status of women, to say nothing of the family.

Meanwhile, we wish Melissa all the best for as normal and happy growing-up years with her parents - all of them - as possible.

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