In the Matter of Baby M

Case Summary of In the Matter of Baby M for my Law & Bioethics graduate school course

by Don Stacy

 

In the Matter of Baby M, Supreme Court of New Jersey, 109 N.J. 396, 537 A.2d 1227 (1988).

 

COURT

Supreme Court of New Jersey

 

PARTIES

Defendant: William Stern

Plaintiffs: Mary Beth Whitehead and Richard Whitehead

 

FACTS

In 1985 Mary Beth Whitehead and William Stern entered into a surrogacy contract stating the following: Mr. Stern’s wife Elizabeth was infertile but the Sterns desired a child and Mrs. Whitehead was willing to provide that child as mother with Mr. Stern as father; via artificial insemination using Mr. Stern’s sperm, Mrs. Whitehead would become pregnant; Mrs. Whitehead would relinquish the born child to the Sterns and terminate her maternal rights so Mrs. Stern could adopt the child; Mrs. Whitehead’s husband Richard (a party to the contract) would perform all acts necessary to rebut the presumption of paternity; Mrs. Stern (not a party to the contract) would be awarded sole custody in the event of Mr. Stern’s death; Mr. Stern would pay Mrs. Whitehead $10,000 after the child’s birth and relinquishment; Mr. Stern also would pay $7,500 to the Infertility Center of New York (ICNY), who arranged the surrogacy contract.

After delivery of Baby M, however, Mrs. Whitehead very reluctantly transferred the child to the Sterns. And, later the same day, Mrs. Whitehead was stricken with despair. The Sterns decided to return the child to Mrs. Whitehead, who promised to relinquish Baby M again in one week. Mrs. Whitehead broke her promise. Mr. Stern filed a complaint seeking enforcement of the surrogacy contract. An order in favor of Mr. Stern was entered and the process server, aided by police, entered Mrs. Whitehead’s home to execute the order. Mr. Whitehead fled with the child. Both Whiteheads escaped to Florida with Baby M. Ultimately, Florida police forcibly removed the child from the Whiteheads and returned Baby M to the Sterns.

 

PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT’S CONTENTION

Mrs. Whitehead and her husband claimed the surrogacy contract was illegal and invalid and unenforceable, citing the right to companionship of her child protected by the New Jersey Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

 

DEFENDANT/APPELLEE’S CONTENTIONS

William Stern claimed the surrogacy contract was legal and valid and enforceable, citing the fundamental right to procreate protected by the New Jersey Constitution and the U.S. Constitution.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

As noted above, William Stern petitioned the Court to force Mrs. Whitehead and her husband to return Baby M, citing the legality of the surrogacy contract. The Court entered an order in favor of Mr. Stern. However, the Whiteheads then fled with the child. Baby M was ultimately forcibly removed from the Whiteheads and returned to Mr. Stern by the Florida police. At the subsequent trial, the court held that the surrogacy contract was valid, terminated Mrs. Whitehead’s parental rights, granted sole custody of Baby M to Mr. Stern, and immediately entered an order allowing the adoption of the child by Mrs. Stern.

Mrs. Whitehead and her husband then appealed the decision of the Court to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.

 

ISSUES

  • Are surrogacy contracts enforceable?
  • If surrogacy contracts are not enforceable, how should custody of a child conceived via a surrogate scenario be decided?
  • If surrogacy contracts are not enforceable, why are they not enforceable?

 

HOLDINGS

  • Surrogacy contracts are unenforceable.
  • The custody of a child conceived via a surrogate scenario should be decided based upon the best interests of the child.
  • Surrogacy contracts are unenforceable because they contradict laws prohibiting the use of money in connection with adoptions, laws requiring proof of parental abandonment/unfitness before parental rights are terminated or an adoption is granted, and laws that make surrender of custody and consent to adoption revocable in private placement adoptions.

 

RULES

  • Surrogacy contracts are unenforceable.
  • Custody of a surrogate child must be determined based upon the best interests of the child.
  • Surrogacy contracts are unenforceable for many reasons.

 

RESULT

The Supreme Court of New Jersey found that the surrogacy contract was unenforceable because it violated several New Jersey statutes and public policy but, based solely on the best interests of Baby M, custody was granted to the Sterns with visitation rights to Mrs. Whitehead. In addition, Mrs. Whitehead’s parental rights were reinstated and the order allowing the adoption of Baby M by Mrs. Stern was revoked.

 

IMPLICATIONS/ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS

This case provided initial legal analysis of a novel reproductive arrangement: artificial insemination of a surrogate mother.