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In the Matter of Baby M: 1987

A Child Is Born, And Plans Go Away, Whitehead Gets Support, Supreme Court Of New Jersey Overrules

Plaintiffs: William and Elizabeth Stern
Defendant: Mary Beth Whitehead
Plaintiff Claim: That Whitehead—who had entered a "Surrogate Parenting Agreement," become pregnant via artificial insemination with William Stern's sperm, and delivered his and her own biological child—ought to be forced to give up the baby
Chief Defense Lawyers: Harold Cassidy and Randy Wolf
Chief Lawyers for Plaintiffs: Frank Donahue and Gary Skoloff
Judge: Harvey Sorkow
Place: Hackensack, New Jersey
Dates of Trial: January 5-March 31, 1987
Verdict: The Judge terminated the parental rights of Mary Beth Whitehead and permitted Elizabeth Stern to adopt Whitehead's and William Stern's daughter. This verdict was overturned in part by the New Jersey Supreme Court which, on February 2, 1988, granted William Stern custody but invalidated Elizabeth Stern's adoption and restored Whitehead's parental rights.

SIGNIFICANCE: This was the first highly publicized trial to examine the ethical questions raised by "reproductive technology."

On February 5, 1985, three parties entered into an agreement in the offices of Noel Keane's Infertility Center of New York.

Richard Whitehead consented to the agreement's "purposes, intents, and provisions" and acknowledged that his wife, Mary Beth Whitehead, would be inseminated with William Stern's sperm. Since Richard Whitehead would be the legal father of any child born to his wife, he also agreed to "surrender immediate custody of the child" and to "terminate his parental rights." Mary Beth Whitehead agreed to be artificially inseminated, to conceive and bear a child without forming "a parent-child relationship," and to relinquish the child and her own parental rights to William Stern. She also relinquished her right to make a decision concerning an abortion. She promised not to seek one unless the fetus was deemed "physiologically abnormal" or the inseminating physician declared that it was necessary to preserve her "physical health." Moreover, she granted William Stern the right to demand that she undergo amniocentesis testing and agreed "to abort the fetus upon demand of WILLIAM STERN" if the fetus was found to be congenitally or genetically abnormal. Together, the Whiteheads "agree[d] to assume all risks, including the risk of death, which are incidental to conception, pregnancy, [and] childbirth."

William Stern agreed to pay Mary Beth Whitehead $10,000 upon her surrender of the baby. Although the contract stated that its "sole purpose… is to enable WILLIAM STERN and his infertile wife to have a child which is biologically related to WILLIAM STERN," it described the $10,000 as "compensation for services and expenses," which should "in no way be construed as a fee for termination of parental rights or a payment in exchange for a consent to surrender the child for adoption." Betsy Stern was neither a party to the contract nor mentioned by name; the Whiteheads did agree, however, "that the child will be placed in the custody of WILLIAM STERN'S wife" in the event of Stern's death prior to the child's birth.

Noel Keane of the Infertility Center was paid a fee of $10,000 from the Sterns.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988