WASHINGTON — Launching a bid to end surrogate motherhood-for-pay, a House subcommittee opened hearings Thursday on legislation that would make it a crime, punishable by up to two years in jail, for individuals and third-party brokers to enter into such contracts for money.
The controversial bill, written by Rep. Thomas A. Luken (D-Ohio) and co-sponsored by 16 other congressmen, would not prohibit a woman's bearing a child for another family by informal agreement, but Luken predicted that removing the profit incentive would end the practice.
"Some will argue that a woman is entitled to sell her reproductive services," he said, noting that the practice has been increasing nationwide, "but there is something dubious about a right which results in a legal decision that pries from a mother's arms the child she has borne by her own body."
During the often-emotional hearing, members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee heard from witnesses on both sides of the surrogate-parenthood issue. Many of them wept as they recounted their experiences.
Tearful Contract Mother
"You can't treat women like baby-making machines. . . . You can't ignore a mother's love for her child," a tearful Mary Beth Whitehead told the panel. With her were three other women also fighting to keep children they bore under contracts.
Whitehead, the New Jersey wife whose "Baby M" case focused national attention on the issue, said that although she signed a contract to give up the child, "in the beginning, it was not a child. It was only later, after Sara was born, that I realized she was my baby girl, and they were taking her away."
Laurie Yates of Michigan, who sued to retain custody of twins she bore for another family, said that such contracts should be outlawed because they inflict pain on all parties. The only people who benefit from such arrangements, she added, are the "baby brokers" who bring the two sides together and make "sizable profits."
Committee members voiced sympathy for Whitehead and Yates, but also were moved by the testimony of Mark and Joyce Stevens, a Montana couple whose daughter, Jennifer Anne, was born six days ago under contract. The natural mother, who was paid $10,000 for her services, freely gave up the baby and did not contest the arrangement, they said.
'Our Only Hope'
Joyce Stevens cradled the baby in a blanket as she testified. Her voice broke as she told the congressmen that the special arrangement "was our only hope. . . . It's the only hope for thousands of other parents who cannot have children. Please don't take this right away from them."
The Stevenses told members of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on transportation, tourism and hazardous materials that they were legally barred from adopting a child in Montana because they are over 40. After they learned about surrogate childbirth from a magazine article, they said, they paid $15,000 to the agency that brought them and the mother together.
Before they could qualify for the program, Mark Stevens said, several psychiatrists and medical doctors interviewed them to ascertain their fitness to be parents.
"We went through far more screening than most couples ever go through in this country before they can become parents," he added. "We made a careful, moral decision in deciding to do this, and it would be a tragedy if this right were taken away."
'Horror Stories' Discounted
Others said that surrogate "horror stories" are the exceptions rather than the rule. Michael Balboni, a Long Island attorney who researched the issue for the New York Bar Assn., said that fewer than 1% of the known 600 to 700 surrogate mothers nationwide have had second thoughts and sought to keep the children. He warned Congress that it would be premature to terminate the practice.
Seeking a middle ground, Rep. Bob Whittaker (R-Kan.) said surrogate contracts have produced good results for many couples, but urged that the law provide more protection for mothers such as Whitehead and Yates, who feel attached to the children they deliver. In particular, he said, Congress should consider a law allowing such a mother a "grace period" during which she might change her mind, take custody of the child and void the contract, he said.
"We have to tread very carefully in this area because a surrogate mother should have the right, the absolute right, to change her mind," Whittaker said. "We have to realize that not every woman is going to anticipate the unbelievably strong bond that may develop between herself and an unborn child at the time she signs this kind of a contract."