WASHINGTON — In a gathering marked by tears and tender touches, four women who have borne children under surrogate-parenting agreements announced their support Monday for a National Coalition Against Surrogacy.
"I think it's about time everybody in this country put an end to this," said Mary Beth Whitehead, the 30-year-old New Jersey woman who vaulted to national attention as the mother who tried to renege on a surrogacy contract in the now-landmark Baby M case. "It doesn't help infertility; all it does is cause a lot of pain."
Making her first major public appearance since she was denied custody March 31 of the daughter she bore for William and Elizabeth Stern, Whitehead spoke in a voice that cracked with emotion. Eyes glistening, she used the name she still clings to for the 17-month-old child the Sterns--and the court--call Melissa.
"Let's stop this. Let's not have any more Saras," said Whitehead, whose appeal will be heard Sept. 14 by the New Jersey Supreme Court. "Let's end it, once and for all."
Organized by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foundation on Economic Trends, a Washington-based public-interest organization that examines the social, economic and ethical implications of emerging technologies, the new coalition will seek immediate national legislation to ban surrogacy, said its president, Jeremy Rifkin.
While no state currently has legislation pertaining to surrogate-parenting agreements and no laws have emerged from Congress, Rifkin predicted at a crowded press conference that "by this time two years from now, we will have such legislation."
In addition, Rifkin said his foundation will fund the coalition's national legal network offering pro bono counsel to surrogate mothers, as well as a national support group for "mothers victimized through surrogacy." He said the service would extend equally to "hundreds of women who have gone through this process" and "are trying to get their babies back" and to women currently pregnant who decide that they cannot fulfill a surrogacy contract.
As an example, Rifkin cited the case of a Detroit-area woman, now eight months pregnant with twins conceived under a surrogacy agreement, who is expected to announce shortly that she will refuse to give up the infants upon birth. Without disclosing her name, Rifkin said the woman had intended to be present for Monday's announcement but was confined to bed with signs of early labor.
Rifkin, whose causes have ranged from accusations that corporations exploited the U. S. Bicentennial celebration to opposition to genetic engineering, maintained that "many mothers who have been exploited by surrogate commercialization feel isolated and unsupported." As if to agree, Whitehead said she and another surrogate mother, 32-year-old Patricia Foster, had "stayed up talking until about 1 in the morning" after meeting in Washington for the first time Sunday afternoon.
Foster, who gave birth in March to a boy conceived in a surrogate arrangement, said she had avidly followed the details of Whitehead's case during the course of her own pregnancy. "When I signed the contract, I wasn't pregnant," Foster said. "When I became pregnant, the hormones changed.
"At the time, it seemed like a good idea," Foster said, sobbing and grasping Whitehead's hand for support. "I thought I could do it. But after being in my shoes, you find out this is not the greatest thing."
Unable to attend Monday's press conference, another surrogate mother, Elizabeth Kane, submitted a statement lamenting her decision to hand over a son born under a surrogacy contract seven years ago.
"I willingly entered into a surrogate-parenting agreement with the euphoric feeling of creating a family for a couple less fortunate than myself," Kane stated. ". . . Today I can no longer explain to my children why I felt justified in exchanging their brother for a $10,000 check.
"By trying to create a family for a stranger, I have created a dysfunctional family for myself. I want you to know that exchanging the emotional stability of a family for any amount of money is too great a price."
But one of the most riveting of surrogate-motherhood tales was recounted by Allejandra Munoz, a 21-year-old woman from a village outside Mazatlan in Mexico who said she was persuaded by her grandmother to go to the United States in September, 1985, for what she thought would be an embryo transfer procedure for a relative Munoz had never met. Speaking through an interpreter, Munoz said that after she became pregnant, she was told the procedure could not be done, and that she would have to carry the baby to term.
Munoz, a former $50-a-week cleaning woman with a second-grade education, said she entered the United States illegally and was confined to the home near San Diego of the couple who had her inseminated. She rejected the $1,500 fee they offered her and eventually won joint custody of the daughter she bore.
"For me there is no justice," Munoz said. "I am ignored as being the mother. I did not come here to have a daughter child, and least of all to give her away."
"To me," said Gena Corea, author of "The Mother Machine," "the question is not, 'What's wrong with Allejandra Munoz that she got herself into such a fix?' Or, 'What's the matter with Mary Beth Whitehead that she once worked as a go-go dancer, had marital difficulties or signed a contract to bear a baby?'
"The real questions are: 'Is reproductive slavery appropriate for women? Is this good public policy? Should we create a class of paid breeders?' "