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Baby M Figure : Lawyer Runs Surrogate Baby Boom

March 12, 1987|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DEARBORN, Mich. — It is certainly one of the strangest mating rituals in America.

Nervous, childless couples in their 30s and 40s, along with a group of very young, fertile women willing to bear their children, have flown in from all over the country to meet and pair off here in the renovated, two-story brownstone that is home to Noel Keane's surrogate parenting clinic, the largest in the nation.

As the couples and potential surrogate mothers arrive and mill awkwardly about the lobby early on a Saturday morning, Keane, the controversial 48-year-old Dearborn attorney who arranged the disputed surrogate contract in the Baby M case, crisply directs traffic.

Job Interviews

Quickly, he ushers the couples into separate offices, where they wait to meet privately with potential surrogates. The young women, some carrying their own small children in their arms, then march through one by one, undergoing what amounts to job interviews. With Keane breaking the ice, the couples and surrogates size each other up; each couple then somehow tries to figure out which woman would be best to be artificially inseminated by the husband.

The following Friday, Keane flies to New York, where he speeds through a series of interviews with more childless couples in his second office in Manhattan's East 60s, not far from a major sperm bank. That night, he is back on a plane to Detroit, in order to be in his suburban office early Saturday morning to meet once more with another group of couples and surrogates.

Keane, the most visible middleman in the ambiguous world of surrogate parenting, clearly does not have much time to waste these days. There seems to be a never-ending line of desperate couples knocking on his door, willing to part with small fortunes--ranging between $20,000 and $30,000, including fees and expenses--in order to have Keane arrange a child for them.

'Baby M Hasn't Hurt'

And nothing, not even the troubling legal and ethical issues raised by the Baby M custody case--in which closing arguments will be heard today in a New Jersey courtroom--seems to be slowing Keane's business down.

"Baby M hasn't hurt," insists Keane, a rapid-talking man of medium build with an open, very Irish face. "If anything, business has picked up as a result, because more people than ever before are aware of the service that I provide.

"If Mary Beth Whitehead wins, I think a lot more people may hesitate about getting into surrogate parenting. But it won't stop it," says Keane, the target of a lawsuit filed by Whitehead, a former Keane surrogate fighting his clients William and Elizabeth Stern for custody of Baby M.

In fact, Keane, the son of Irish immigrants who has been widely credited with--and blamed for--founding surrogate parenting in the United States, is rapidly becoming a one-man baby boom.

"Noel is by far the biggest in surrogate parenting," concedes William Handel, an attorney who runs the Center for Surrogate Parenting in Beverly Hills. "His program is probably as big as the next two or three combined."

Keane now has more than 150 surrogate deals in the works, roughly equal to the total number of children that have been born through his program since he started it as a sidelight to his legal practice in 1976. Most of Keane's Dearborn law partnership is now consumed by surrogate parenting, and his harried staff now needs a computer to keep track of all of the couples and surrogates working with him.

With no laws on the books anywhere in the country banning or regulating surrogate parenting, Keane keeps pressing forward, convinced of the moral soundness of what he is doing.

'Happy Stories'

"There are so many happy stories," Keane says, as he flips through a photo album of clients, surrogates and the children they have produced. "I'd love to be born into the homes of some of these couples." He also insists that his surrogates, all volunteers, usually do not get involved just for the money; many, he says, are motivated by a desire to help others share the joy of having children.

"I know what I'm doing is right," he says firmly.

A churchgoing Roman Catholic, he even had the presumption to issue a press release Tuesday lambasting the Vatican's major pronouncement condemning surrogate parenting.

So, even while Keane is coming under mounting criticism for running an operation that his competitors charge is so loosely controlled that he is now the target of at least four lawsuits, no one disputes that Keane has established himself as the most dominant force in surrogate parenting today.

Keane Well-Known

"Ever since I first heard about surrogate parenting, I've heard about Noel Keane," says Nadine Taub, a specialist in reproductive law at Rutgers University.

"I did research into this for three years before we did anything, and we decided to come to Keane," says Ronnie Shoolis of New Jersey, who, with her husband, James, is a Keane client. "I think for him, it's a business. But he's the biggest, so if you are going to spend the money, why not come to him?"

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