By Jennifer Weiss
New Jersey Monthly Magazine
On March 27, a college student named Melissa Stern will turn 21. In Tenafly, two parents, William and Elizabeth Stern, will celebrate. In Bayport, Long Island, two more parents, Mary Beth and Dean Gould, will mark the day in some way of their own. 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.
Instead, after delivering the baby, Whitehead named her Sara and refused to relinquish her. She and her then husband, Richard Whitehead, fled to Florida with the infant and their two other children. The Sterns had police return the infant, whom they had named Melissa. Mary Beth Whitehead sued for custody. Twenty years ago, on March 31, 1987, judge Harvey Sorkow of the state’s Superior Court in Bergen County upheld the contract, terminated Whitehead’s parental rights, and escorted Elizabeth Stern to his chambers, where she adopted Melissa.
Whitehead appealed, and on February 3, 1988, the New Jersey Supreme Court voided the contract and adoption and restored Whitehead’s parental rights. The Sterns’ Tenafly residence remained Melissa’s home, but Whitehead won broad visitation rights and legal status as Melissa’s mother.
The landmark case made society grapple with the consequences of surrogacy. The state Supreme Court set precedent in ruling that a fit mother cannot be forced to give away her baby; in essence, the court said that biology and gestation trump a contract. Gestational carriers, who have no genetic relationship with the children they bear for other couples, have since replaced paid surrogates in New Jersey.