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Feminists Fight Court Ruling in Baby M Decision : Steinem, Friedan, Chesler, French Among Supporters

July 31, 1987|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Declaring their opposition to "commercialization of reproductive technologies," 22 prominent feminists have joined with the Foundation on Economic Trends here to file an amicus curiae brief in the Baby M case.

Among those lending their names to the brief--filed by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foundation on Economic Trends, a public-interest organization that examines the social, environmental, economic and ethical impacts of emerging technologies--are Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Phyllis Chesler and Marilyn French, author of "The Women's Room." Foundation president Jeremy Rifkin called the effort "the first public policy statement by leading feminists in the United States on a biotechnology issue."

One of a Dozen Filed

Filed Thursdayin the Supreme Court of New Jersey in Trenton, the 46-page brief is one of a dozen submitted in conjunction with the case, which is scheduled for review Sept. 14 by the New Jersey Supreme Court. To date each amicus brief has demonstrated support for Mary Beth Whitehead, the New Jersey housewife who in March, 1986, bore a baby girl under a contract agreement with William Stern and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Stern.

Soon after the baby was born, Whitehead announced she wanted to keep the baby, whom she named Sara and who was called Melissa by the Sterns. A bitter battle ensued, and on March 31, a New Jersey superior court awarded the Sterns full custody of the infant, known in court papers as Baby M.

"We want this decision reversed," Rifkin asserted.

Rifkin stressed that unlike the other amicus briefs associated with the case, the document drawn up by the foundation and its 22 co-sponsors does not address the question of custody. Rather, the foundation's brief challenges the contractual and constitutional basis for the decision by New Jersey Superior Court Judge Harvey R. Sorkow, charging that the surrogacy agreement "promotes baby-selling," permits "an elite economic class to exploit a poorer group as breeders" and opens "the floodgates to commercialization" of emerging reproductive technologies.

In Newark, N.J., attorney Gary N. Skoloff, who represents the Sterns, dismissed those issues, saying he felt certain that the trial-court phase of the dispute "produced sufficient evidence that it is good policy to allow surrogate parenting."

Of the long-range constitutional and ethical questions raised by the case, Skoloff said, "These are things that various legislatures will have to address."

Harold J. Cassidy, the Red Bank, N.J., lawyer who represents Whitehead, did not return calls to his office for a comment.

Passionate Debates

Recent and dramatic developments in reproductive technology have produced passionate discussion and debate, but little consensus, among the feminist community, according to Dr. Michelle Harrison, a Boston physician and author and a co-signer of the brief. Another of the Foundation for Economic Trends brief's signers, Kristen Golden, Gloria Steinem's administrative assistant at Ms. magazine, explained that one reason no major statement on these matters of eugenics and biotechnology has been forthcoming from a body of feminists until now is that "we have not had a unified position."

But for many leading feminists, the Baby M case crystallized anger and focused attention on commercial ramifications of reproductive technology as well as what author and Ms. magazine editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin, also a signer of the brief, called the concomitant "potential for exploitation of poor women."

Echoing the brief's warnings that if the Baby M decision is allowed to stand in the face of developing biotechnology, "the 'surrogate' becomes a kind of reproductive technology laboratory," author and early feminist leader Friedan, vacationing in East Hampton, N.Y., cautioned that the present policy "dehumanizes, depersonalizes and commodifies" women.

Meetings Held in Home

Troubled that the "enormous and profound social consequences" of the Baby M case were not receiving due consideration, novelist Lois Gould, whose name also appears on the brief, said from her home in New York that she began holding meetings in her living room to discuss the case soon after it went to trial in January.

"The general agreement seems to be that if this is admitted to contract law, we are in major trouble, because it becomes a business decision," Gould said. "It simply eliminates all the moral, legal, social and ethical questions. It reduces everything to monetary values, to commodity exchange."

Novelist French, interviewed by telephone at her summer house in Sheffield, Mass., voiced concern about "all the various reproductive technologies going on that are being rushed into without much thought."

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