Reverberations from Tuesday's surrogacy ruling in a New Jersey courtroom are being broadly felt. The decision itself - which awards Baby M to her biological father, William Stern, and his wife and denies custody and visitation rights to the natural mother, Mary Beth Whitehead - was not totally unexpected.
Now debate, and future legal proceedings including appeals, will center around Superior Court Judge Harvey R. Sorkow's finding that a surrogate contract - one that allows private parties to make a legal arrangement for the birth of a child (and ultimate custody) through artificial insemination or an alternate genetic method - is legal and binding.
Lori Andrews, a lawyer who is an expert on surrogacy and has written a book on the subject, ``New Conceptions,'' calls the ruling ``appropriate.''
Miss Andrews, a fellow of the Chicago-based American Bar Foundation, says this decision will encourage passage of responsible laws, as well as legal guidelines, to help those who participate in such transactions. As of now, no state laws exist, but many have been proposed.
``Surrogacy will flourish - and it will be improved,'' Andrews predicts. She insists that the practice is not tantamount to ``baby selling'' as some suggest.
``Here the father is paying money on behalf of his own child,'' she says. ``Baby-selling laws are designed to protect already-pregnant women'' from those who would exploit them for money.
Andrews adds, however, that state legislation is needed to help the surrogate to ``see what she is getting into,'' to define a ``legal'' parent and to provide clear enforcement for surrogacy contracts.
Jeff Rosenberg, another lawyer who specializes in child placement, is less enthusiastic about the Baby M ruling.
Mr. Rosenberg is director of public policy for the National Committee for Adoption (NCA), in Washington, D.C. He says this decision could force society to ``rethink the parent-child relationship.''
Rosenberg asks: ``Can we treat women as baby breeders? Are we sanctioning a business that exploits women and treats babies as commodities?''
The NCA official prefers that government make a broad commitment to better adoption services rather than encourage surrogacy arrangements.
Even some of those who have been cast in the role of surrogates are divided over the practice.
Jan Sutton, married and with children of her own, has twice served as a surrogate mother. She says she is a strong believer in surrogacy. A spokeswoman for the National Association of Surrogate Mothers (SASM), Mrs. Sutton says couples seeking such an arrangement should now be ``more confident that they will get [and keep] a child.''
Sutton insists that most surrogates are ``not in it for the money.'' But she believes payment is proper. (The Sterns paid Mrs. Whitehead $10,000 for her services.)
``We want to help friends and relatives who are infertile. Most of us just love to get pregnant,'' Sutton adds.
The SASM spokeswoman adds, however, that she, too, advocates regulations governing surrogacy. Among other things, Sutton would require psychological prescreening of all parties involved to prevent possible problems, such as those that arose in the Baby M case.
Elizabeth Kane (a pseudonym) claims to be the nation's first surrogate. She bore a child for another couple in 1980 and says she still ``carries the scars.''
Ms. Kane talks about the ``feeling of loss I have had for over six years.''
Now she says she would like to see all surrogacy arrangements banned.
Kane says she had no idea ``what I was getting into.''
And she calls the Baby M ruling ``very unfair.''
``You can't compare a sperm donor to a mother,'' she insists.
``No court in the world can break the bond between a [birth] mother and a child,'' Kane insists.
``Women don't really realize what they are doing when they sign such a contract before they conceive. I beg others not to sell their babies for $10,000.''