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Nonfiction in Brief

June 26, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

SACRED BOND The Legacy of Baby M by Phyllis Chesler (Times Books: $16.95)

The case of Mary Beth Whitehead--a New Jersey housewife who agreed to be artificially inseminated as a surrogate mother and then decided to keep the child--exemplifies technology's wild gallop ahead of its human "masters," who lag far behind in a legal, ethical and philosophical mire, unsure of how to slow technology's pace or direct its course. On the one hand, by lowering infant mortality rates in the wealthy West, technology has helped liberate women from devoting the major portion of their lives to rearing children. Technology can exploit women in new ways, however, argues Phyllis Chesler, a New York psychology professor and clinical psychologist. Chesler makes no pretense of objective reporting in this angry, electric book. As she sees it, the case of Baby M proves that American society is still powerfully biased in favor of the highly educated, the relatively affluent and, most of all, the men. To much of the American public and to most of the media, Chesler writes, Whitehead was little more than a "surrogate uterus."

Chesler's general points about American chauvinism are persuasive. "An ideal father is expected to legally acknowledge and economically support his children. Fathers who do anything more for their children are often seen as 'better' than mothers--who are, after all, supposed to do everything." More questionable, however, are her conclusions about the New Jersey state Supreme Court decision granting custody to Bill Stern, the man who donated the sperm, but recognizing Whitehead as the "real mother." The court gave Stern custody, Chesler writes, "because they view parental rights essentially as paternal rights. . . . The judicial model for a human being . . . is still a man or a father and not a woman or a mother."

This argument ignores other considerations, such as the fact that Whitehead was a less-than-stable mother during the period in which she hid Baby M from the authorities. In one phone conversation tape-recorded at the time, Whitehead made references to the fact that she might have to kill the baby. Chesler's dismissal of the Sterns' suffering also seems unfair: "During the years of struggle, the Sterns have had both the baby and immense public sympathy. For them, legal decision days never meant losing anything." At one point, Chesler even questions the Sterns' love for each other, without providing any evidence whatsoever: "Might a decision against (the Sterns) slowly and inextricably kill their love for the baby or their love for each other?" "Sacred Bond" is still a powerful, provocative book, though, illustrating social problems sure to remain controversial through the 1990s. As Chesler writes, during the Whitehead case, "We were all voting on the future of motherhood and on the future of the human family."

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