The broiling controversy surrounding the landmark "Baby M" case, soon to be decided by a judge in Hackensack, N.J., has drilled the term "surrogate mother" into our consciousness. She is a woman, who for a fee, agrees to have a child for an infertile couple and give the child to them after it is born. However, who these women are and what motivates them is often twisted in the web of controversy that surrounds them. Here are some of the surrogate mothers' intimate stories.
Laurie Antale got to the delivery room minutes before the baby was born. The doctor on duty wasn't hers and they had never met. When he asked the name of the newborn girl, Antale looked quizzically at her boyfriend. He returned the look. Finally she said, "I don't know. You'll have to ask her mother."
The doctor "almost fell backward," she told a room full of laughing women, all of them surrogate mothers, and the men with them.
They were seated in an office at the Surrogate Parent Program in West Los Angeles, run by Nina Kellogg. Every two weeks Kellogg, a licensed marriage and family counselor with a doctorate in psychology, conducts a surrogate mother support group.
One of Two Locally
Kellogg's center is one of two in Los Angeles; the other is the Center for Surrogate Parenting, Inc. in Beverly Hills. There are about 20 surrogate parent programs in the United States. Since 1981, Kellogg's center has had 17 births and the Beverly Hills center has had 52.
Antale, a petite woman of 26 with long, light brown hair, was the last among the support group to have had a baby for another couple.
"I told him 'I'm a surrogate and I know the mother's on the way,' " Antale continued. " 'Will somebody look out in the waiting room for her?' "
Kellogg asked Antale how she felt now.
"Glad it's over with. I spent a whole year pregnant," said Antale, a registered nurse and the divorced mother of three. Her first pregnancy as a surrogate lasted three months, then ended in a traumatic miscarriage. The biological father "lashed out at me" emotionally, she said, making her feel as if the unborn infant's death was her "fault." They managed to resolve the tension between them, however, and she was artificially inseminated again. The second pregnancy went smoothly and resulted in the birth of a baby girl named Melissa.
'Whose Baby Is This?'
"Let me ask you the question that everybody wants to know," Kellogg said. "Whose baby is this?"
"It's theirs," Antale responded. "There's no doubt about that."
"Are you just saying that because it's the polite thing to say, and what we've all been coached to say?" Kellogg asked.
"No, especially for me, after the miscarriage, after seeing the couple's pain and shock. I see how come people jump off bridges. I felt like a real failure. I have three children . . . but it was their last chance."
Their last chance . The words invoke the pain an infertile couple feels, and with it, the hurt and hope that has lead to surrogate parenting.
Kellogg asked another question. "How many of you are worried about your children? You've heard this before: Are your children going to miss their flesh and blood?"
A 'Family Project'
"Definitely not," Becky McKnight said. Her oldest daughter gets "really angry" when people say that, she told the group. Her teen-age daughter tells people " 'This isn't my sister, this is for our couple. It was a family project.' "
McKnight speaks with calm command. She is 35, the mother of three and became a surrogate four years ago while working for three obstetricians who specialize in infertility. She now assists Kellogg with the screening of prospective surrogate mothers.
If the child McKnight carried for another couple wants to get to know her biological mother in the future "that will be fine," she said. "We're all set up for that." But "she isn't a member of our family. She's theirs."
In the Baby M case, Mary Beth Whitehead, 29, reneged on her contract as a surrogate mother and refused to give up the baby. At one point, she threatened to kill herself and the baby if she had to relinquish the child to the father, William Stern, 40. The New Jersey judge will decide the validity of the surrogate contract and whether custody of the 11-month-old girl should go to Whitehead--the mother of two and a high school dropout--or Stern, a biochemist, and his wife, Elizabeth, 41, a pediatrician.
Religious leaders, most notably those representing the Catholic church, have condemned the practice of artificially inseminating a surrogate mother with the sperm of the intended father. This month, in a major statement of church doctrine, the Vatican also termed artificial insemination in general, embryo and sperm banks, and the technology that produces "test-tube" babies immoral. Reaching beyond Catholics, the Vatican statement asked government leaders to oppose these new reproductive techniques and impose "moral norms on certain medical and scientific activities."