The Baby M Case: A Peek Into The Ethical and Legal Issues Related To Surrogacy

The Baby M case was perhaps one of the glaring examples which brought to the forefront the ethical issues involved in surrogacy. The case was about determining the legal parentage of Baby M. It, in fact, became the first case held in the American Court to question the validity of surrogacy.

Baby M Case
The Background of the Case

Mrs. Mary Beth Whitehead, a married woman with two kids – an eleven year old son and an eight year old daughter – signed a surrogacy contract with the Sterns. William Stern and his wife, Elizabeth Stern, opted for surrogacy because Elizabeth was advised against pregnancy on medical grounds.

The surrogacy arrangement was put into effect by a broker, Noel Keane. Mary Beth was to be impregnated with Mr. Stern’s sperm through artificial insemination. According to the settlement, Mary Beth was to bring the surrogate pregnancy to term and then relinquish the rights over the baby after delivery. The Sterns were to pay Mrs. Whitehead $10,000 after the birth of their child. The contract also forbade her from having an abortion.

A baby girl was born to Mrs. Whitehead on March 27th, 1986. The girl genetically linked to Mr. Stern and Mrs. Whitehead was called Melissa by the Sterns and Sarah by Mrs. Whitehead.

However, following the birth of the child, Mrs. Whitehead refused to give up the custody of the child, threatening to attempt suicide if she was forced to do so and she even left New Jersey taking the child with her.

The Sterns froze Mrs. Whitehead’s account and a warrant was issued for her arrest.

The Case

The trial lasted two months.

The New Jersey Court ruled out the surrogacy contract because it was invalid. They recognized Whitehead as the legal parent of the child. The Family Court was asked to determine whether Stern being the father or Whitehead being the mother should be given the custody of the child.

Finally, Stern was given the custody of the child keeping in consideration the “best interests of the child analysis” and Mrs. Whitehead was awarded visiting rights.

The Aftermath

In March 2004, after she attained the legal age of majority, Baby M (then called Melissa Stern) legally terminated the parental rights of Mary Beth. Moreover she also formalized Elizabeth Stern’s maternity by undergoing adoption proceedings.

On several occasions, Melissa was found saying how happy she was to be brought up in the Stern family.

Implications of the Case

The case got much of its attention due to the fact that it raised new legal and social questions on parenthood where ‘third party reproduction’ technique is used.

It was a point of debate whether

“the ability to contract away parental rights tolk a child born to her invoke a basic human right for a woman to make decisions about her own body, or whether recognizing such a right would entail too great risks of exploitation.”

When the New Jersey Court said that nothing can alter the legal rights of a woman who bears the child, that somewhat settled the surrogate mother’s status in America. However, it remained so only till gestational surrogacy came to the forefront with technical and scientific breakthroughs and led to the establishment of the fact that the surrogate mother had no relation with the child.

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