Although Western Europeans will be watching for the eventual outcome of the Baby M case, in which a New Jersey judge handed down his decision yesterday, there seems to be a concensus in the region against agencies that arrange for surrogate births. However, private arrangements for such childbearing are not generally frowned upon. And there is concern about lack of legal control over infertility treatment and embryo research.
Surrogate births covered by contracts are rare in Western Europe, but several countries have taken steps to outlaw the practice before it becomes widespread.
Britain has banned commercial surrogacy, and the issue has provoked a vigorous national debate. Elsewhere, motherhood by proxy consists mostly of private deals with no legal standing, according to officials in various countries.
Four countries -- West Germany, Norway, Sweden, and the Netherlands -- are considering surrogacy bans, and Western European justice ministers are to discuss the issue at a conference on artificial reproduction scheduled May 4-5 in Brussels, Belgium.
Frits Hondius, deputy director of legal affairs for the 21-nation Council of Europe, said surrogacy had not yet become a significant issue on the Continent, although court cases in the US and Britain have been widely publicized.
In a recent telephone interview from the council's Strasbourg, France, headquarters, Mr. Hondius said governments were more worried about the lack of legal controls over the whole field of infertility treatment, particularly such spinoffs of test-tube baby techniques as embryo research. He said there appears to be a European consensus against US-style agencies that arrange for childless couples to pay a surrogate to bear a baby for them.
``In Europe, I think there is a general feeling that whatever you allow, it should not be for profit,'' he said. ``It should be done out of compassion.''
Among Western European countries, only Britain has specifically banned commercial surrogacy. Parliament passed the law in 1985 after a court granted a couple, believed to be Americans, custody of a baby born as a result of a deal arranged through a surrogacy agency.
Because of uncertainty over whether the law covered private surrogacy deals, the government brought a test case this year. It concerned a couple who wanted to adopt a two-year-old girl a surrogate mother bore for them for 5,000 ($8,000). A court ruled in the couple's favor March 11, noting that the surrogate mother had no objection.
The next day, another High Court ruled in a case with striking similarities to the New Jersey custody battle.
The court granted custody to a surrogate mother who bore twins for a childless couple for an unspecified fee and then changed her mind about giving them up.
The judge, Sir John Arnold, said the maternal bond between the woman, who is on social security, and her 5-month-old babies outweighed the ``intellectual quality and environment'' of the childless couple's home.
Citing US and British cases, West German Health Minister Rita Suessmuth said in January that she would introduce a bill in Parliament this year banning surrogate births and advertisements dealing with it.
A similar bill is expected to be approved by the Norwegian parliament this spring.
In Sweden and France, surrogacy is prohibited under adoption regulations. But an inquiry board appointed by the Swedish government has proposed legislation banning surrogacy as ``a doubtful bargaining with children.''
Although surrogacy is not seen as a major issue in the Netherlands, the Dutch Health Council, a government advisory body, has called for a ban on surrogacy agencies to prevent the practice from becoming a commercial gimmick.
Dr. Bert Alberda, a Rotterdam gynecologist, said there were no official figures on surrogate births because most are arranged privately. But he estimated at least 50 babies a year are born to surrogate mothers in the Netherlands. In Switzerland, a biweekly magazine, Der Schweizerische Beobachter, has launched a bid for a national referendum on genetic engineering that would ban commercial surrogacy.
Under Swiss law, it would be several years before such a referendum would come to a vote.
Austria has no restrictions on surrogate births, but authorities are trying to establish legal standards in the event such cases arise.