This morning I woke up to thunder outside and "Morning Edition" on NPR. They were talking about surrogate mothers. I sat up and listened to the story about a woman who was matched up with a man in Germany to carry a baby for him with his sperm and a donor's egg. This is nothing new these days. However back in 1987, it was the ultimate brave new world. I've been thinking about surrogacy because some kind soul uploaded Baby M on Youtube. I worked in my room while watching the miniseries. In some ways it's very eighties with the hair and clothes. But it also reminded me of when you realize that sometimes not everything was black and white.
In 1985, William and Betsy Stern met Mary Beth Whitehead, a perky New Jersey housewife who was willing to have a baby with them. While watching the miniseries one thinks no, no! This is going to end badly! It will! But they go ahead with the procedure, and Mary Beth gets pregnant. We know how it will go: She will give birth to a girl that in one house is named Melissa, another house Sara. It explored so many things: Whose child is this? Did Mary Beth Whitehead have a right to call Melissa/Sara her daughter? And is it true that in the miniseries that "it's not the doctor that carries the baby, but the garbageman's wife?"
Everyone had an opinion back then about this. In 1987 I was in eighth grade taking a drama class where we had to a debate. I truly hated debates, I still do. I thought of an idea: why not Baby M? Why not something topical? I suggested the topic and it was okayed by the teacher. To my surprise several people signed up for the topic. It was on the news all the time, and everyone was talking about it.
We did research at the library. The one thing we could all agree on was that Melissa/Sara was darling. "Shouldn't they cover her up?" one of my classmates said. "I mean, someone could kidnap her or something." All too true. Before she was a year old that baby was on the cover of several magazines.
One day when our teacher was absent the substitute gave us permission to go to classes and take polls about who should get the baby: The Sterns or the Whiteheads? Almost all the girls said the Whiteheads should get custody. All the guys didn't know. All the teachers looked incredibly uncomfortable.
The next day we were in trouble. "You had no right barging in and asking questions like that," our teacher told us. "You're going to have to change your topic." Why? It didn't seem fair at the time. I get it more now. You get a bunch of kids barging in your class asking about if a woman who carries a baby for nine months for another couple is okay. Oh yeah, it's the guy's sperm. But it's not the wife. And she's being paid for it. Try going back to prepositional phrases after that.
I was on team Mary Beth at the time. It felt so wrong to take a baby away from her mom when the mother didn't want to give her up. Yet there was so much I didn't know and I didn't find out until later: the fact that Mary Beth threatened to kill herself and the baby. That she didn't think her husband's alcoholism was affecting her family.She needed therapy, she needed someone to tell her "You have two children that need you."
One thing remains the same: Although I understand why people turn to surrogacy, there are so many children in this country and abroad that need homes. Sometimes it's not biology that connects a child to a family. It can be needing a family.
Twenty-five years ago last month, a decision was made in the Baby M case: The Sterns got custody of the baby now officially named Melissa. Whitehead's parental rights were taken away. However on appeal, she got her rights back and visitation rights.
They faded away from the headlines, although surrogacy became more mainstream, and it wasn't just the garbage man's wife anymore. It was students mostly,or women trying to help another woman So far it hasn't been The Handsmaid's Tale. As for Melissa Stern, she had visitation with with Mary Beth Whitehead for years, but in 2004 legally changed it for Betsy Stern to be her legal mother. She gave one interview saying her parents "were her best friends" and that's all she had to say about that. Mary Beth was in the news again three years ago, according to the New York Times: being the caretaker of banker Jack Dreyfus, several items went missing in the house.
Last fall Melissa got married by the original judge in the Baby M case. One wonders if Mary Beth Whitehead Gould saw a picture of her daughter in the paper dressed in white. One wonders if she considered herself the mother of the bride.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries