A Surrogate Mother Describes Her Change of Heart—and Her Fight to Keep the Baby Two Families Love

updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On March 27, Mary Beth Whitehead, 29, a New Jersey housewife, gave birth to a 9-pound, 2-ounce girl whom she named Sara. The baby's father was not Whitehead's husband, Richard, a truck driver and father of her older children, Ryan, 12, and Tuesday, 10; he was instead William Stern, a 40-year-old Tenafly, N.J. biochemist. Stern and his pediatrician wife, Elizabeth, also 40, had contracted through the Infertility Center of New York for Whitehead to be artificially inseminated by Stern. As the surrogate mother of his child, she would receive a $10,000 fee. Elizabeth Stern is said to have physical problems that would make pregnancy a health-threatening condition.

Upon the birth of the child, however, Whitehead refused to surrender the baby. She turned down the money and fled with the child to Florida. The Sterns tracked her and with the help of local law enforcement officers took back the baby, whom they have named Melissa. The infant remains in the Sterns' temporary legal custody. In the first case of its kind (two other surrogates are known to have reneged on their contracts, but in both cases the biological fathers backed out), they filed suit against Whitehead, demanding that she relinquish all claim to the baby. Whether contracts with surrogate mothers can be legally enforced will be decided next month by Judge Harvey R. Sorkow in Bergen County's Family Court. At her home in Brick Township, Whitehead told her story to Assistant Editor Bonnie Johnson.

The idea to do this didn't just pop into my head. I have an older sister, Beverly, who can't have children. I saw how it felt not to have a child. Or I thought I did. I answered an advertisement in a local paper. It just said, "Surrogate Mothers, Infertility Center of New York" and gave a telephone number. The Center sent me an application. It asked questions like why I wanted to do this. I said that I was a very giving person and that I thought this was the greatest gift of all. I also had to send a picture of me and my children. It was like I was a breeder and they were just interested in what I could produce. My husband was against the arrangement at first, but when he thought about it, he believed it would be a nice thing. He knows the type of person I am. I enjoy doing for people.

I sent the application in on a Friday, and the following Monday I got a call that they had a couple, not the Sterns, who wanted to meet me. I went in the next day. In the waiting room the receptionist told me briefly what being a surrogate entailed. That's when I found out it was my egg being used. I thought I would be implanted with another woman's egg that had been fertilized by her husband. I went ahead anyway. I guess it was because I had gone that far and I really liked the couple.

A week later I got two hours of counseling with a psychologist selected by the Center. It included ink blots and stuff like that, I guess to find out if I was crazy. I was never asked about how I was going to feel when I came home without this baby. I also got legal counseling from a lawyer provided by the Center. We went over the contract briefly. I had to have an amniocentesis and, he said, if it showed that even one finger was missing I would have to abort or the couple would walk away. Nothing was said about my changing my mind, and I never thought of it.

I tried for eight months to conceive for that couple. It was just like being infertile. I was really starting to get depressed, so I stopped. A week or two later I was contacted by the Center again. They said there was another couple interested in meeting me. It was the Sterns. My husband Rick and I met them the next evening for dinner. Then twice a month, for five months, Bill Stern and I drove to New York together for the artificial inseminations. Once, I asked the doctor, "Does this make me less of a person because of what I'm trying to do?" She said, "You're only giving away an egg. The man has to give away thousands and thousands of sperm." I look back now and say I probably was questioning what I was doing, but I guess I chose not to face it.

I conceived on July 2 last year. Bill and Betsy were excited. I was overjoyed. I had been waiting 13 months for that. Rick, Tuesday, Ryan, the Sterns and I all had dinner to celebrate. Ryan had been going to school down in Florida. He's shy and introverted and was having a rough time in the school up here. My father is a retired teacher and we thought it was best for Ryan to get the extra attention my parents could give him. I'm this high school dropout. I quit in my sophomore year, when I was 15. I worked for a while in a deli, and when I was almost 17, I got married. The Sterns knew about this. Ryan came up for vacations and even went to a Mets game with Bill. Now they're trying to use it against me, saying, "Her son wasn't even living with her." I think it's cruel to hurt a child just to try to hurt me.

I had a lot of complications during the pregnancy. In my fifth month I came down with phlebitis. I had to lie in bed for 2½ weeks and wear surgical stockings. Betsy said, "Well, if you're going to lose it, it's better now." It took me a long time to get pregnant with that baby. I didn't want to hear that I was going to lose it. A few weeks after that I got clogged milk ducts. Then, in the ninth month, I developed high blood pressure. Finally, when I was two days overdue, I developed a backache. Because of the blood pressure problem, the doctor decided to break my amniotic sac, and labor began. I wanted the Sterns in the delivery room but the hospital wouldn't allow it. It came down to a choice between Bill and my husband, and naturally I picked Rick. Sara was born at 1:32 p.m. We asked a friend to call the Sterns. They came that evening after work.

Sara was born on a Thursday. On Saturday Betsy called me and said, "The papers have been messed up." Although I had signed a contract before Sara was born, other papers were needed, for example, to allow Bill to be named on the birth certificate as Sara's father. Betsy said that in order for me to get my $10,000 I had to sign them and have them notarized. But I just couldn't. I hung up the phone, looked at Sara and said, "No way." That was the point at which I knew. That night, when Bill and Betsy came to visit, I was crying. I said, "I just can't do it." Betsy said, "You'll be like a sister to her." She was trying to make me feel like it was okay.

I went home the next morning and at 3 p.m. they came to get her. After they left there was an emptiness that I felt could never be filled again. The next morning I called the Sterns and told Betsy, "I'm coming." When I got there Sara was upstairs in her room. I picked her up and said to Betsy and Bill, "I'm taking the baby. I have to have her." At first Betsy tried to make me feel guilty. She said, "Well you might as well take all these baby things, Mary Beth. I have no need for them." That made me believe I had the right to take Sara.

I didn't want to hurt them, but I couldn't deal with the hurt I was feeling. It was like I was obsessed. But I wasn't suicidal. That's what they told the judge later. They dreamed that stuff up. It was just mother instinct. I wanted my baby. I understood that the Sterns emotionally attached to the baby. But I attached emotionally and physically. A lot of people say I have two children, and I should have known what it would feel like. But I never gave a baby away. I took Sara and went to an aunt's house. I just wanted to get away and really think about what I was doing. After five days I decided that there was no way I could give her up. I loved her too much. When I got back I called the Sterns. I said, "We played God and we had no right to." Bill tried to make me feel guilty. He said, "You have two children. It's not fair."

A few days later they called and insisted on coming to visit. My sister-in-law was there with me. I was holding the baby, and Betsy called me into the kitchen. Their name fits them. She's very stern, very domineering. She said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to keep her." And she said, "I'll drag you through court and through mud." She started yanking on my arm, saying, "Give Bill that baby, give Bill that baby." I said, "Please leave," but she refused. There was a real scene. Finally I told my sister-in-law to call the police, but she didn't have to. The Sterns left immediately.

I didn't hear from the Sterns for almost six weeks. Then one evening Tuesday was looking out the window, and she said, "Mommy. It's Betsy and Bill and the police." Based on his claim that I was suicidal, Bill had gotten a court order asking for temporary custody of Sara. I went out the back door and they surrounded me. Betsy said, "Give me the baby, Mary Beth. We'll let the courts fight this out." My husband was yelling, Tuesday was screaming, "Don't touch my mother! Leave my mother's baby alone!" It was horrible. Finally the Sterns went to their car and we went inside. I went into the bedroom to finish feeding the baby. Rick said to me, "Mary Beth, you're never going to see her again." I said, "I don't know if I can deal with that," so he said, "Take her." He climbed out the window, and I gave him the baby. I went in to the police and said, "If there's no baby what's going to happen?" They must have thought I killed her. The police ransacked my room. When they didn't find the baby they all left.

The next day Rick and the kids and I left for Holiday, Fla. where my parents live. They say I eluded the police for three months. Let's face the facts. The first place anybody would go is to their mother's, and I'm sure the Sterns knew I was there. It just must have taken them three months to get their legal work done. Bill took the New Jersey temporary custody order and filed it in Florida where he asked to have it enforced. They froze our assets and attached our checking account and our house to force us to return.

I wanted to come back, but I needed a lawyer first. I called my congressman, Legal Aid, the ACLU, but nobody would help me. They said there were no laws about this and it was too bad. Finally a friend found a lawyer for me and we headed home. We got to Stewart, Fla. when I became deathly ill. It seems I had a urinary tract infection that went undetected. The bacteria from the infection got into my bloodstream and then my brain. I temporarily lost my speech and my sight.

Because I was so sick Rick had to take the baby back to my mother. The next day two uniformed officers and one plainclothesman sneaked into the house. They had a court order but they never showed it to my mother. They just pushed her aside and took Sara. Tuesday saw them leave. She was so scared, she stood there and wet her pants. At that point my mother contacted the press. She thought it was the only way someone would help me. I got out of the hospital after eight days and we drove back home to New Jersey. By that time the story was all over the news. I face charges of interference with child custody. When we left the state my husband lost his job as a truck driver for Marpal Disposal Company. He just got it back, but in the meantime we've lived very frugally. It hasn't been easy surviving, but my parents have helped out.

At first I was given one-hour visitation twice a week; it has just been doubled. We meet at a children's home in Hackensack. It's over a two-hour drive each way from my house. Sara is brought by Lorraine Abraham, her court-appointed guardian, and an armed guard. I can't bring anyone with me and am accompanied by two armed guards. At first, when I wanted to feed the baby or take her picture to show her sister and brother, Lorraine wouldn't allow it. She said I had to get the court's permission first.

The first time I visited Sara was on Sept. 12. I hadn't seen her for five weeks. They were 45 minutes late in getting there. The Sterns were concerned about the press. Sara seemed different to me. She seemed shattered. She was not the baby they took, but nobody seems to care.

I don't think I've been given a fair shot. The judge has never checked out Betsy and Bill. Just because he's a biochemist and she's a pediatrician doesn't make them good parents.

I keep thinking this is a bad dream. Though there is no longer any freeze on our house or bank account, the Sterns are planning to sue us for damages. Many of my friends don't talk to me anymore. But we figure Sara is worth it. You cannot contract to sell a baby. If they legalize this contract they may soon start bringing poor women in from other countries just to be breeders. I did this as something good. I didn't think anything bad could come of it. But there's no doubt in my mind that Sara belongs with me, her sister and brother and my husband, who has been like a real father. I feel that's where she'd want to be. I'm looking ahead to when Sara is 18, and she's going to ask, "Why did you give me away?" She's not going to go to the judge. She's not going to go to the guardian. She's not going to go to Betsy and Bill. She's going to come to me and say, "Why didn't you fight for me?"

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