Feminists Fight Court Ruling in Baby M Decision : Steinem, Friedan, Chesler, French Among Supporters

Times Staff Writer

Declaring their opposition to “commercialization of reproductive technologies,” 22 prominent feminists have joined with the Foundation on Economic Trends here to file an amicus curiae brief in the Baby M case.

Among those lending their names to the brief--filed by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foundation on Economic Trends, a public-interest organization that examines the social, environmental, economic and ethical impacts of emerging technologies--are Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Phyllis Chesler and Marilyn French, author of “The Women’s Room.” Foundation president Jeremy Rifkin called the effort “the first public policy statement by leading feminists in the United States on a biotechnology issue.”

One of a Dozen Filed

Filed Thursdayin the Supreme Court of New Jersey in Trenton, the 46-page brief is one of a dozen submitted in conjunction with the case, which is scheduled for review Sept. 14 by the New Jersey Supreme Court. To date each amicus brief has demonstrated support for Mary Beth Whitehead, the New Jersey housewife who in March, 1986, bore a baby girl under a contract agreement with William Stern and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Stern.


Soon after the baby was born, Whitehead announced she wanted to keep the baby, whom she named Sara and who was called Melissa by the Sterns. A bitter battle ensued, and on March 31, a New Jersey superior court awarded the Sterns full custody of the infant, known in court papers as Baby M.

“We want this decision reversed,” Rifkin asserted.

Rifkin stressed that unlike the other amicus briefs associated with the case, the document drawn up by the foundation and its 22 co-sponsors does not address the question of custody. Rather, the foundation’s brief challenges the contractual and constitutional basis for the decision by New Jersey Superior Court Judge Harvey R. Sorkow, charging that the surrogacy agreement “promotes baby-selling,” permits “an elite economic class to exploit a poorer group as breeders” and opens “the floodgates to commercialization” of emerging reproductive technologies.

In Newark, N.J., attorney Gary N. Skoloff, who represents the Sterns, dismissed those issues, saying he felt certain that the trial-court phase of the dispute “produced sufficient evidence that it is good policy to allow surrogate parenting.”

Of the long-range constitutional and ethical questions raised by the case, Skoloff said, “These are things that various legislatures will have to address.”

Harold J. Cassidy, the Red Bank, N.J., lawyer who represents Whitehead, did not return calls to his office for a comment.

Passionate Debates

Recent and dramatic developments in reproductive technology have produced passionate discussion and debate, but little consensus, among the feminist community, according to Dr. Michelle Harrison, a Boston physician and author and a co-signer of the brief. Another of the Foundation for Economic Trends brief’s signers, Kristen Golden, Gloria Steinem’s administrative assistant at Ms. magazine, explained that one reason no major statement on these matters of eugenics and biotechnology has been forthcoming from a body of feminists until now is that “we have not had a unified position.”


But for many leading feminists, the Baby M case crystallized anger and focused attention on commercial ramifications of reproductive technology as well as what author and Ms. magazine editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin, also a signer of the brief, called the concomitant “potential for exploitation of poor women.”

Echoing the brief’s warnings that if the Baby M decision is allowed to stand in the face of developing biotechnology, “the ‘surrogate’ becomes a kind of reproductive technology laboratory,” author and early feminist leader Friedan, vacationing in East Hampton, N.Y., cautioned that the present policy “dehumanizes, depersonalizes and commodifies” women.

Meetings Held in Home

Troubled that the “enormous and profound social consequences” of the Baby M case were not receiving due consideration, novelist Lois Gould, whose name also appears on the brief, said from her home in New York that she began holding meetings in her living room to discuss the case soon after it went to trial in January.

“The general agreement seems to be that if this is admitted to contract law, we are in major trouble, because it becomes a business decision,” Gould said. “It simply eliminates all the moral, legal, social and ethical questions. It reduces everything to monetary values, to commodity exchange.”

Novelist French, interviewed by telephone at her summer house in Sheffield, Mass., voiced concern about “all the various reproductive technologies going on that are being rushed into without much thought.”

As an example, author and Ms. magazine founding editor Steinem said in a telephone interview from Toronto, “We need to create the same kinds of safeguards and guidelines for surrogacy that we have for sterilization--for example, informed consent--or for adoption, where there is a time period for the biological mother to change her mind.”


Public Policy Issue

Gena Corea, author of “The Mother Machine” (Harper & Row), is another writer who signed the Foundation on Economic Trends’ brief. From her home in Winchester, Mass., she said the significance of the action is that “for the first time, through this brief and in a public way, the issue of women being used as a breeder class is being raised as a public policy issue.”

Emphasizing that the questions generated by the Baby M case extend far beyond the matter of surrogate parenting, Corea noted also that “These technologies are not going to be used in isolation. They are going to be used in conjunction, and it’s really important to see how they interrelate.”

Indeed, recalling that “the doctrine of eugenics envisions the creation of a society made up of increasingly superior human beings,” the brief states outright that “commercialization of modern reproductive technologies would enable economically privileged members of society to practice positive eugenics to an extent only imagined by its originators.”

Technology Gone Wrong

Gould, calling herself a “whistle blower” in the discussion of how the Baby M case may affect future policy, said the brief, with its list of well-known signers, would help to “show what could go wrong” with developing technology.

“It is not business as usual when you start trafficking in life,” Gould said gravely, “or, as they like to call it, life forms.”

Calling for “ethical, moral, legal and commercial standards” for the new technology, Foundation on Economic Trends president Rifkin expressed optimism that his organization’s brief “will force a national debate on what the role of reproductive technology should be.”