New Jersey's Baby M Trial--The View From the Bleachers

Times Staff Writer

The courtroom is tiny, with just 14 of the 56 seats set aside for spectators at a trial that has sparked interest around the world. So the line here at Bergen County Superior Court begins forming early, usually by about 6:30 a.m., for the chance to sit in on the precedent-setting case of a surrogate mother who reneged on her contract to give up the baby she bore for a couple who could not have children of their own.

"You see a lot of the same people here every day," said one of the Bergen County Sherriff officers assigned to the courtroom, Sgt. Donald Douglas, as he checked the available seating on Tuesday. "For a time we had a lot of teen-agers coming every day. That was kind of surprising."

Teen-agers, old people, middle-aged people and yuppies: One thing that unites those who flock to the case of Stern v. Whitehead--known far more widely by its popular name, the Baby M trial--is that everyone has an opinion. People take sides, more like fans at a sports event than observers at a complicated legal proceeding in which even heated advocates for one side or the other admit there is no clear bad guy.

Broken Contract?

"Frankly, right from the very start, I thought that a contract was broken and the Sterns should get the child," retired meat packer Nathaniel Isler, 73, of New Milford, N.J., said. Attracted by the "landmark nature of this case," Isler has been a member of audience at the Baby M trial "almost every day, right from the beginning" on Jan. 5.

"From the viewpoint of having read the articles in the paper, I felt very sorry for Mary Beth Whitehead," retired Eastern Airlines flight attendant Joan Seiz of Tenafly, N.J., said. "I had the idea that the Sterns, you know, were highly educated and affluent, and that this was not such a big deal, that they could always do it again." But "after hearing Mrs. Whitehead's testimony, I found it hard to believe some of her statements. Slowly but surely I have turned in the other direction."

Even some members of the theoretically objective news media covering the case of an 11-month-old girl known as Melissa by William and Elizabeth Stern and as Sara by Mary Beth Whitehead have been heard to pick favorites.

"That Mary Beth, she's really a sweetheart. I hope she wins," said a photographer for a local newspaper hovering outside the courtroom.

"Really?" said a fellow lensman, a competitor from a wire service. "I'm for the Sterns."

Photographers and television crews must wait outside the hearing room. Inside, reporters from local and national news organizations, and even correspondents from publications such as France's Paris Match and Germany's Stern jockey for 39 creaky wooden seats. Since the case is to be decided solely by Judge Harvey Sorkow, the jury box has been turned over to artists sketching the daily events for television, newspapers and magazines.

"This is the most riveting case I've ever worked on," said Ruth Pollack, an artist working for WPIX-TV in New York as well as Newsday. Like her colleagues in the jury box, Pollack was peering out from behind goggle-like, double-lensed artist's binoculars, "so you can see and draw at the same time." Her smock was smudged with charcoal, and so, at this moment, was her face.

"There are no really clear right-or-wrongs here," Pollack said. "You really can have sympathy for both sides."

But the real reason Pollack found herself so involved in the story was probably the same factor that has made the case the subject of such intense and ongoing attention.

"Because," Pollack said, "it involves matters that are basic to everybody's life."

The dispute centers around biochemist William Stern, his pediatrician wife Dr. Elizabeth Stern and Whitehead, a 29-year-old high school dropout who is married and has two children. When the Sterns, both 41, concluded that having children of their own would be inadvisable because Elizabeth Stern suffers from a "mild form" of multiple sclerosis, they consulted a New York infertility center and contracted with Whitehead to be artificially inseminated with sperm from William Stern.

$10,000 Payment

The Sterns agreed to pay Whitehead $10,000 to carry the child. In court, Bill Stern has testified that having a child who was related to him by blood was of particular importance because he is the last survivor of a family wiped out by the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

Whitehead never accepted the fee, and argues now that the contract was invalid.

But Betsy Stern was euphoric when she learned Whitehead had conceived in the summer of 1985. "SHE'S PREGNANT!" she wrote in lipstick across the bathroom mirror in the couple's home in Tenafly, N.J.

Sometimes the Sterns and the Whiteheads socialized together during Whitehead's pregnancy. Looking back on that period, Mary Beth Whitehead says now that at least in the early phases of the pregnancy, she "denied" any maternal feelings of her own.

"I just kept saying, 'this is not my child," Whitehead said.

But in the final months of pregnancy, Whitehead said her attachment to the infant inside her "really started to be overwhelming." In the delivery room, when the 9-pound-2-ounce baby girl was born two days past her due date last March 27, Whitehead said she was in tears at the prospect of parting with the child.

Almost immediately thereafter, Whitehead's emotions began taking a trip to the stratosphere. She has said she cried constantly, and could think of nothing but how much she wanted to be with her daughter. When the Sterns permitted her a visit with the child last May, she spirited the infant to Florida. During that summer, Whitehead threatened suicide if forced to return the baby to the Sterns. Finally, last July 31, authorities seized the child from Whitehead and awarded temporary custody to the Sterns.

Judge Sorkow's decision on who will get final custody of Baby M is expected sometime in March. The trial is in recess for the remainder of this week, and resumes Tuesday. Whitehead has said she will appeal, "most definitely, oh, absolutely," if the Sterns win custody. Attorneys for the Sterns have said they, too, will appeal should the judge render a decision not in favor of their clients.

Allowed to Visit

Twice a week, Whitehead is allowed to visit the little girl at the Edna Conklin Center, a county-operated facility just a few blocks from the courthouse. The Sterns deliver the child to the center, and for two hours supervisors watch as Whitehead plays with the baby, feeds her, dresses her.

"She's real active," Whitehead said after one such visit on Tuesday. "She's eating Cheerios, and she's working on eye-hand coordination. You know what she was doing this morning?" Whitehead put her hand to her mouth in the manner that small children sometimes play Indian. "She was doing the wo-wo-wo game."

Neatly dressed in a plaid kilt-style skirt, red turtleneck and simple black mid-heel pumps, and carrying a Gucci shoulder bag, Whitehead laughed as she inspected the sleeve of her black double-breasted blazer. "I think I'm wearing some of her applesauce right now."

Always cordial, the Sterns have nonetheless remained somewhat aloof from the media during the course of the trial. They will answer questions, crisply and succinctly, but mostly they remain divided from the press and the public by a bar that separates the principals from the public.

By contrast, Mary Beth Whitehead has made herself decidedly accessible to members of the media. She says she finds the courtroom proceedings taxing, and so often sits in a tiny, makeshift pressroom adjacent to the hearing room, smoking Newport cigarettes, critiquing the pictures of her in the latest newspapers and chatting candidly.

"Here she is," Whitehead said on one such occasion, Tuesday, and produced a thick stack of pictures from her handbag. Here was the baby bouncing on Whitehead's lap; there was the child crawling in hot pink overalls; at Christmas, Whitehead's children Ryan, 13, and Tuesday, 12, were shown playing with their half-sister on a blanket spread out on the floor.

Prettier in Person

"They look just alike," Whitehead, far prettier in person than she is in most of her pictures, said of her two blonde, blue-eyed daughters.

At five-foot-10, Whitehead weighed in at 185 pounds when she delivered the baby last March. But the stress of the past year has taken a toll on her body, she said. "I usually weigh about 140. Right now I'm 110," she said. "Normally I wear a size 7 or 9. I'm wearing a size 3 now."

To a newsman's comment that diet-crazed men and women all over America would like to have such problems, Whitehead shot back, "They should take the stand."

In court, the Sterns have heard their decision to delay starting a family until after they had completed their doctorates and until after Elizabeth Stern finished medical school dissected in almost clinical fashion. Their finances have been examined; so have their health histories. Experts brought in by the Sterns testified that having children might well have endangered a woman with multiple sclerosis. Later, specialists called by Whitehead's attorneys challenged that position, suggesting that childbirth might have been feasible after all.

Similarly, Mary Beth Whitehead's personal history has been placed under a highly public microscope. Yes, she and her sanitation worker husband have had their marital problems, she testified. Yes, she once called authorities to help resolve a domestic dispute. Yes, her husband has been unemployed and has had a drinking problem.

"I think his famous quote about that is 'pick my brains, call me names, who cares?' " his wife said.

She does not deny that at 22, she worked for a time as a go-go dancer in a New Jersey bar. She also tended bar, worked as a baby sitter and earned $40 per house doing housework.

In fact, Whitehead cites that figure when she refutes suggestions that the $10,000 fee might have been a partial incentive for a woman with a house in foreclosure to consider surrogate mothering.

"Oh God, I think it works out to like 52 cents an hour," she said. "And I don't work cheap."

On Tuesday, reports from three mental-health experts retained by the court-appointed guardian to Baby M, variously described Whitehead as suffering from a "mixed personality disorder" whose symptoms include paranoia, self-centeredness, impulsiveness and unpredictability and exhibiting an "immature personality structure" reflected by "egocentric, self-dramatized, manipulative and exploitive behaviors." All three specialists recommended that Whitehead be denied custody of the baby.

One Step Further

Assessing the reports of his fellow professionals, Cornell University psychologist Lee Salk went one step further and advised that "all contact" between Whitehead and Baby M should be "terminated immediately."

With so much publicity, Whitehead has become something of a celebrity. At the Grand Union grocery store near her home in Brick Township, N.J., people stare at her, she said. They recognize her and point to her at the Bricktown Mall.

"I can think of better ways to be a celebrity," Whitehead said.

On the matter of surrogate parenting, Whitehead has reversed her opinion entirely. Now she opposes the process, saying that "adoption is preferable. I think you're better off not messing with Mother Nature."

Having engaged in the procedure herself, Whitehead now says she made a major error of judgment.

"I feel like, look, we've made a mistake," she said, "and now we have to make the best of it."

She prefers not to read the psychiatric reports that have been entered into the court record. She maintains that William Stern "baited" her into shrill and threatening statements she made in a tape-recorded telephone conversation the Sterns' lawyers produced in court last week. People who know her know she's "just a mother who wants to keep her baby," Whitehead said.

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