HACKENSACK, N.J. — The courtroom is tiny, with just 14 of the 56 seats set aside for spectators at a trial that has sparked interest around the world. So the line here at Bergen County Superior Court begins forming early, usually by about 6:30 a.m., for the chance to sit in on the precedent-setting case of a surrogate mother who reneged on her contract to give up the baby she bore for a couple who could not have children of their own.
"You see a lot of the same people here every day," said one of the Bergen County Sherriff officers assigned to the courtroom, Sgt. Donald Douglas, as he checked the available seating on Tuesday. "For a time we had a lot of teen-agers coming every day. That was kind of surprising."
Teen-agers, old people, middle-aged people and yuppies: One thing that unites those who flock to the case of Stern v. Whitehead--known far more widely by its popular name, the Baby M trial--is that everyone has an opinion. People take sides, more like fans at a sports event than observers at a complicated legal proceeding in which even heated advocates for one side or the other admit there is no clear bad guy.
"Frankly, right from the very start, I thought that a contract was broken and the Sterns should get the child," retired meat packer Nathaniel Isler, 73, of New Milford, N.J., said. Attracted by the "landmark nature of this case," Isler has been a member of audience at the Baby M trial "almost every day, right from the beginning" on Jan. 5.
"From the viewpoint of having read the articles in the paper, I felt very sorry for Mary Beth Whitehead," retired Eastern Airlines flight attendant Joan Seiz of Tenafly, N.J., said. "I had the idea that the Sterns, you know, were highly educated and affluent, and that this was not such a big deal, that they could always do it again." But "after hearing Mrs. Whitehead's testimony, I found it hard to believe some of her statements. Slowly but surely I have turned in the other direction."
Even some members of the theoretically objective news media covering the case of an 11-month-old girl known as Melissa by William and Elizabeth Stern and as Sara by Mary Beth Whitehead have been heard to pick favorites.
"That Mary Beth, she's really a sweetheart. I hope she wins," said a photographer for a local newspaper hovering outside the courtroom.
"Really?" said a fellow lensman, a competitor from a wire service. "I'm for the Sterns."
Photographers and television crews must wait outside the hearing room. Inside, reporters from local and national news organizations, and even correspondents from publications such as France's Paris Match and Germany's Stern jockey for 39 creaky wooden seats. Since the case is to be decided solely by Judge Harvey Sorkow, the jury box has been turned over to artists sketching the daily events for television, newspapers and magazines.
"This is the most riveting case I've ever worked on," said Ruth Pollack, an artist working for WPIX-TV in New York as well as Newsday. Like her colleagues in the jury box, Pollack was peering out from behind goggle-like, double-lensed artist's binoculars, "so you can see and draw at the same time." Her smock was smudged with charcoal, and so, at this moment, was her face.
"There are no really clear right-or-wrongs here," Pollack said. "You really can have sympathy for both sides."
But the real reason Pollack found herself so involved in the story was probably the same factor that has made the case the subject of such intense and ongoing attention.
"Because," Pollack said, "it involves matters that are basic to everybody's life."
The dispute centers around biochemist William Stern, his pediatrician wife Dr. Elizabeth Stern and Whitehead, a 29-year-old high school dropout who is married and has two children. When the Sterns, both 41, concluded that having children of their own would be inadvisable because Elizabeth Stern suffers from a "mild form" of multiple sclerosis, they consulted a New York infertility center and contracted with Whitehead to be artificially inseminated with sperm from William Stern.
The Sterns agreed to pay Whitehead $10,000 to carry the child. In court, Bill Stern has testified that having a child who was related to him by blood was of particular importance because he is the last survivor of a family wiped out by the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
Whitehead never accepted the fee, and argues now that the contract was invalid.
But Betsy Stern was euphoric when she learned Whitehead had conceived in the summer of 1985. "SHE'S PREGNANT!" she wrote in lipstick across the bathroom mirror in the couple's home in Tenafly, N.J.
Sometimes the Sterns and the Whiteheads socialized together during Whitehead's pregnancy. Looking back on that period, Mary Beth Whitehead says now that at least in the early phases of the pregnancy, she "denied" any maternal feelings of her own.
"I just kept saying, 'this is not \o7 my\f7 child," Whitehead said.