Baby M

Baby M

Baby M (born March 27, 1986) was the pseudonym used In re Baby M, 537 A.2d 1227, 109 N.J. 396 (N.J. 02/03/1988) for the infant named Sara Elizabeth Whitehead at her birth, and later named Melissa Stern by her father and adoptive mother.

"In re Baby M" is an American custody case between biological parents who were strangers to each other and who met via a newspaper advertisement which specifically sought a woman willing to enter into a contract to conceive and bear a child (by artificial insemination) with a married man, and who would then relinquish her maternal rights in order for the child to be adopted by the wife of the father and raised by the married couple.



Mary Beth Whitehead, was artificially inseminated with William Stern's sperm, making her the biological mother of their child. Whitehead had responded to an ad placed by the Infertility Center of New York in the Asbury Park Press seeking women willing to help infertile couples have children.[1] Prior to conceiving their daughter, Whitehead and Stern entered into a contract which they termed a "surrogacy contract." Despite what was stated in their contract, Stern's wife, Elizabeth, was not infertile, but had multiple sclerosis and was concerned about the potential health implications of pregnancy. A medical colleague had warned her that his own wife had suffered temporary paralysis during pregnancy.[2]

On March 27, 1986, Whitehead gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Sara Elizabeth Whitehead. However, within 24 hours of transferring custody to the Sterns, Whitehead asked for the baby to be given back to her, and was said to have threatened suicide. Whitehead subsequently refused to return the baby to the Sterns and left New Jersey, taking the infant with her. The Sterns had the Whitehead family's bank accounts frozen and sought warrants for their arrests.

In 1987, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Harvey R. Sorkow awarded custody of Baby M to the Sterns under a "best interest of the child analysis", validating the surrogacy contract.[3]

On February 3, 1988, the Supreme Court of New Jersey, led by Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, invalidated surrogacy contracts as against public policy but in dicta affirmed the trial court's "best interest of the child" analysis. The Supreme Court remanded the case to family court. On remand, the lower court awarded Stern custody and Whitehead visitation rights.[4][5]

JoBeth Williams and John Shea both received Emmy nominations for their portrayals of Mary Beth Whitehead and William Stern in ABC's 1988 miniseries, Baby M.

The case attracted much attention as it demonstrated that the possibilities of third party reproduction had novel legal and social ramifications. The case exposed the dilemma of a mother who was impregnated by a stranger, contractual agreements and biological bonding. The case also split feminists, some of whom argued that a woman retains all rights to her own body, but others were also sensitive to the issue of potential exploitation. The surrogacy arrangement was heavily criticized, in part because the term "surrogate" was inaccurately used in this contract and obscured the fact that Mary Beth Whitehead was the biological (not surrogate) mother of the child.

Whitehead later wrote a book about her experience.[6] Additionally, an Emmy-award winning ABC Network miniseries, simply titled Baby M, was broadcast in May 1988. The miniseries starred JoBeth Williams, in an Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated performance as Mary Beth Whitehead, John Shea as William, Bruce Weitz as Mary Beth's husband Rick, Robin Strasser as Elizabeth and Dabney Coleman as Gary Skoloff.[7]


After reaching the age of majority in March 2004, the daughter known as "Baby M" (now named Melissa) legally terminated Whitehead's parental rights and formalized Elizabeth Stern's maternity through adoption proceedings.[1]

Melissa attended The George Washington University and majored in religious studies. She said it was strange to study the Baby M case in her bioethics class at the university.[1]

"I love my family very much and am very happy to be with them," Melissa told a reporter for the New Jersey Monthly, referring to the Sterns. "I'm very happy I ended up with them. I love them, they're my best friends in the whole world, and that's all I have to say about it."[1]

Melissa completed a dissertation at King's College, London, entitled, "Reviving Solomon: Modern Day Questions Regarding the Long-term Implications for the Children of Surrogacy Arrangements." [1]

New Jersey Judge Francis Schultz expanded the Baby M ruling to apply to gestational surrogates, as well as genetic surrogates, on December 23, 2009, in the case of A.G.R. v. D.R.H & S.H..

In January, 2011, a British Court ruled a woman who bore a daughter under an informal surrogate agreement with a childless couple should keep the baby. [2]

In October 2011, Judge Sorkow, the original judge in the Baby M case, presided over the wedding of Melissa and her husband, a neuroscientist from New Jersey. The couple currently live in London, United Kingdom.


  1. ^ a b c d "Now It's Melissa's Time". New Jersey Monthly. 2007. Archived from the original on May 26, 2007. Retrieved March 6, 2007. "Twenty years ago, Melissa was known as Baby M. She was the subject of an infamous custody battle between the Sterns and Mary Beth Gould (then Mary Beth Whitehead, of Bricktown). Whitehead had responded to an ad in the Asbury Park Press seeking women willing to help infertile couples have children. The Infertility Center of New York, which had placed the ad, matched her with William and Elizabeth Stern of Tenafly. Whitehead signed a surrogacy contract, agreeing to be inseminated with William Stern’s sperm, carry the baby, and then give it up." 
  2. ^ Steinbock, Bonnie (1988). "Surrogate Motherhood as Prenatal Adoption". Law, Medicine, and Health Care 16 (1): 44–50. 
  3. ^ Peterson, Iver (April 5, 1987). "Baby M's Future". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-06-14. "Last week, in a decision that created law in the legislative vacuum surrounding surrogate motherhood, Judge Harvey R. Sorkow of New Jersey Superior Court awarded custody of one-year-old Baby M to William Stern, the child's natural father, and his wife, Elizabeth. He stripped Mary Beth Whitehead, the mother, of all parental rights, and ruled that the contract she had signed with the Sterns was enforceable despite material misrepresentations by the Sterns." 
  4. ^ "Justice for All in the Baby M Case". New York Times. February 4, 1988. Retrieved 2009-06-14. "At a stroke, New Jersey's Supreme Court brought clarity and justice to the Baby M case, which so tormented the nation last spring: Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould retains her rights as a parent. William Stern and his wife retain the right to raise his child. New Jersey acquires a convincing judgment that a 'surrogate parent' contract for money amounts to an illegal bill of sale for a baby." 
  5. ^ "In the Case of Baby M". 2007. Retrieved April 29, 2008. 
  6. ^ Whitehead MB, and L. Schwartz. A Mother's Story: The Truth About the Baby M Case. Publisher: St Martins Pr; 1st ed. edition (February 1989) ISBN 0-312-02614-5
  7. ^ Baby M (1988) (TV)

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