' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: More on Baby M from a psychiatrist who defended her mother, MaryBeth Whitehead

Saturday, January 2, 2010

More on Baby M from a psychiatrist who defended her mother, MaryBeth Whitehead

In the previous post about surrogacy and a current case in New Jersey in which Angelia Robinson agreed to bear a child (and had twin girls) with a egg purchased from a seller* and Sean Hollingsworth's sperm, her gay brother's partner, the judge in the case referred to the notorious Baby M case of the late Eighties. In that case, one of the first surrogacy births by legal contract, MaryBeth Whitehead was impregnated with the sperm of William Stern and gave birth to a daughter. MaryBeth immediately bonded with the girl, breast fed her for 123 days before she was forcibly taken from Whithead's mother's home in Florida by the police. At the time, Whitehead herself was hospitalized with a severe infection.
From Phyllis Chesler's book, Sacred Bond:
"...while the Sterns waited at the police station, detectives armed with an order for Melissa [the name of daughter given her by the Sterns] entered Catherine Messer's [Whitehead's mother] home. They allegedly knocked the grandmother down, took Sara [Whitehead's name for the girl] from her crib, and pushed away her older sister, Tuesday, who was screaming and hitting an officer on the leg with a hairbrush."
That was at the end of July, 1986. Whitehead was not permitted to see her until mid-September, when she was allowed to see her twice a week, for an hour each time. Yesterday I mentioned that not only did our acquaintance, Ms. Chesler, write in defense of Whitehead, but to our surprise while surfing the web we found that another friend, Michelle Harrison, had also written about the case. Through FaceBook, Michelle, a psychiatrist, who now runs an orphanage for girls in Kolkata, India and has two daughters herself, and I reconnected some months ago, and she sent us the following about the Baby M case, and how she got involved: 
I had followed the case in the papers, vaguely concerned.  I'd asked some feminist friends who had met her and they were not at that time supportive of her -- a clash of personality, class, religion...  Then one day driving to work I heard that she had threatened to kill the baby.  I was actually relieved.  If she was crazy, I didn't have to worry about her losing the child.  When I got to work I read the NY Times transcript of the phone conversation when she made the threat.  I thought, OMG, she has been set up!  She kept saying desperately to Bill [the biological father], that the baby was hers and Bill's--OUR baby--and he kept baiting her saying MY baby.  He was taunting her, and knew of course that he was recording her.  She kept saying they could share raising the baby, that he was the father and she wouldn't keep the baby from him.  Again he would repeat that the baby was HIS.  And then finally she said something to the effect, ' I bought her into this world.  I can .....' (I honestly don't remember the exact words but the threat was clear and for this she was condemned.)   As a psychiatrist, dealing with families, I knew how one person can drive another to say things in desperation.  He just kept calmly kept saying the baby was his, and she desperately wanted him to say OURS.  That's when I started making phone calls to try and get something started on her behalf.

by M HARRISON - 1987 - Cited by 21 - Related articles

My Photo
I was able to obtain copies of all the "expert" reports, analyzed them, wrote the above paper.  There was nothing objective. She was called delusional for saying, 'My baby needs me and I need my baby.'  The reports were all the same as the experts had all examined the parties together.  A major criticism of MaryBeth was that she had kept the crib as this was a bad reminder for her other children and represented her not accepting the loss (all true but twisted in meaning).  My Cici [one of Michell's daughters] was only a couple of years older than Baby M, and we set up her old crib on the steps of the Hackensack Courthouse as part of our demonstration.

I wrote a chapter in a book about New Reproductive Technology in which I particularly praised MaryBeth's oldest child Tuesday.  When the detectives came to seize the baby, in Florida, she tried to fight them off with a hairbrush.  But the detectives raised the baby up towards the fan, and thus she and her grandmother let go -- to protect the baby, and the detectives took her away.  She was a nursing baby, literally torn from the arms of her family.  It was months before they were reunited, for short supervised visits.  But the baby, each time, would snuggle into her mother's arms and go to sleep. The baby had tried to nurse, but MaryBeth was forbidden to nurse her.

As I write this, more than twenty years later, sitting at my computer in an Indian orphanage, surrounded by children I love, I'm reminded of the opening line of the first medical paper published in the US about surrogate motherhood. Dr. Phillip Parker in New England Journal of Medicine wrote that there was a "shortage of white babie" and larger demand.  I can't find the paper online and my copies are in the US so I don't have the exact quote -- but this was the rationale for surrogate motherhood, and is an underlying rationale for much of the new reproductive technology. 

I once again thank Lorraine for keeping these memories alive for all of us -- giving meaning to the fights we have made, win or lose, but always there as foundations for tomorrow's work.
Dr. Michelle Harrison describes herself as a mother, writer, physician, psychiatrist, artist, currently living in an orphanage she established for 12 orphan girls in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. Her connection to Kolkata is through her younger daughter who was two months old when she adopted her from a Calcutta orphanage. Dr. Harrison also has a "stomach baby" (wonderful term, says Dr. Harrison, used in India) born in 1972.  In 2006 she established an NGO, Childlife Preserve: Shishur Sevay.  Four of the girls have severe disabilities. All the girls are being educated in a local government school as well as at Shishur Sevay, which is a non-institutional model for inclusive care of disabled and abled children living together. Shishur Sevay, says Dr. Harrison, is a place of joy. Michelle is "Mummy" to them all. This is a link to her blog:

Michelle's post reminds me once again how little respect birth/first mothers get, particularly from the adopting middle and upper classes. If they can denigrate us, demean us, it must make it easier for them to take our children, and think they are doing A Good Thing. Class distinction that they perceive, or that is real, is one reason the feminists by and large have never wholeheartedly embraced our cause--while they did of working class women in regards to wages and sexual harassment. They don't see the loss of our children through adoption as a feminist issue because too many of them want to adopt themselves--and they fall back on--Hey, You signed the surrender paper.

This class business is one of the many reasons that I urge first/birth mothers to come out of the closet. While we may have been down on our luck, or badgered and forced by our parents into submission when we relinquished our children, today many of us lead successful middle-class lives. And we need to tell the world that WE DID NOT FORGET. We think about the children we surrendered to adoption every day. Most of us hope to meet them one day, and hope they search for us.

I long for the day we find a first/birth mother in some state legislature and she fights for giving adopted people their original birth certificates--and birth mothers the right to find out their child's new name!
In one of those twists of fate that connect people, Michelle was a pioneer in identifying and treating severe premenstrual syndrome, which I have written about in connection with my daughter, as she killed herself when she was in the throes of the worst of it. I too had the same problem, but found amazing relief with large doses of the hormone progesterone, and wrote about it for several magazines twenty years ago, often quoting Dr. Harrison. Progesterone is inexpensive, it's not hard to compound synthetically from soy, but because Big Pharma can not patent it, the large-scale drug tests that would bring it to the medical community's attention will not be done. Yet it is not hard to obtain.

I can only say that progesterone helped my life, and my sanity, as it has the other women with the same problem I have recommended trying this to. Several several times I urged my daughter to try it--not just the creams that you can buy over the counter, but a larger dose, available by prescription, taken only when one is premenstrual--but she resisted, saying that she already took so many drugs, for her epilepsy, for her depression. I write about all this here again in case anyone reading has the same monthly problem in the hope of getting just one more woman relief. In my own case, progesterone saved not only my marriage, but quite possibly my life. --lorraine
*I refrain from using the word "donor" as the surrogacy purveyors do, as that implies a gift, but as far as we can tell, the egg was purchased from a businesswoman who sold her eggs.


  1. What a powerful post.

    I agree with you about the feminists - or the current version of feminism - which has become gender politics. I believe that is a separate issue.

    I was asked once if I would attend a gay pride parade in support of someone I like and care about. Although I didn't say it to the person who asked me(probably should have) I thought the day I see lesbians speaking out to support the rights of birth parents is the day I will attend a march to publicly support them.

    Don't get me wrong I have no issue with gay rights but gay people aren't the only ones who have paid a price for expressing their sexuality and they are definitely not the only people who have been in the closet and need to come out.
    Unfortunately many of them don't see it that way which is a narrow view of feminism and women's rights.

    They have an issue acknowledging the treatment of birth mothers - conveniently alleging that it was a choice.

    How ironic!

    1. hi! I am a lesbian and I support birth mother's rights wholeheartedly
      I am a sociologist and I am writing a book about surrogacy, and I must say that my opinion has already caused me trouble from the biggest gay and lesbian parent's association in italy - but i still go to prides, and now you have to as well ;)

  2. I don't see someone being a surrogate as the same as a mother who relinquishes to adoption. She gets pregnant deliberatly with the sole intention of being a surrogate. In this case you write about, she is impregnanted with eggs that were sold by a different mother???
    How messed up is that for the poor child, did nobody stop to think about that?
    A mother who relinquishes to adoption usually finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy and has a huge lack of support from her family and community. She gives up her child as a last resort or is coerced into that. Either way it's not the same thing.

    I don't want to be lumped in the same area as women who get pregnant as a job. My opinion of them is not negative or in any way demeaning. I just don't see this as the same thing as adoption.

    I also don't like adoption and abortion being lumped together.

    It is my belief that the surrogat mother has the right to keep the child and because of that I am against it.

  3. Lorraine, once again you prove my point. It does not matter what the situation is, when it is about children, their mothers, custody, the making of a child available in any way, it is the business of each and every one of the mothers out there.

    I hope, in my heart, that one day we will stop being such factionists and simply be mothers that know.

  4. Gee Lori, what do mothers "know", and could it possibly differ from mother to mother? I have given birth to 4 children, nursed the three I raised, and yet do not feel this lets me in on "what mothers know" enough to comment for all mothers.

    I do not feel I know any more about how a surrogate mother who contracted to bear a child that was meant to be given away feels, any more than a man or a woman who never had a child does.

    I know how I feel about my children, but I do not think that makes me a universal expert on motherhood. I did not want to be involved in the Baby M case at the time it was going on, and still do not see surrogacy and surrender as the same thing.

    It is about intent, as an earlier poster said; there is a different mindset that agrees to carry a child for someone else before that child even exists, before there is a pregnancy. As to the surrogates who carry a child not genetically related to them at all, I can't begin to comprehend why anyone would do that, or having done it, why they would be any more entitled to that child than anyone else. They really have no more connection than an adoptive parent.

    I am agreeing with KimKim on this, in setting up these arrangements neither the buyer nor the seller are really thinking of the child. That some of the sellers later change their mind does not excuse their making a child this way in the first place.

  5. First, Maryanne, I was neither agreeing with, nor disagreeing with the situation. I was simply stating that women, all women, all mothers, should be interested in knowing what is going on with custody issues, regardless of the circumstances of the conception. It can, will and does affect the right of all mothers to nurture their children.

    Second, what has breastfeeding have to do with this? I breast fed, walked the floor with, raced to the doctor with, wiped away tears for my daughter, was puked on, crapped on, urinated on, change diapers, watched her first steps, heard her first word - gee, what does that make me? I never had a second. You are blessed, but that has nothing to do with what I was saying

    You statement was more angry than anything else. I simply stated the obvious, everytime a child is born, custody can be an issue. While we are interested in issues strictly to do with adoption, it is a very narrow and restrictive view.

    Consider, the child that was so callously created, from a woman who does not care's egg, a man who thinks of the child as properties sperm and in the body of the only person that seemed to form an attachment to the child as a human being.

    Does this situation not seem to set into the nitch of exactly what rights a person has to raise the child of their body? After all, what if the egg had been the woman's?

    I don't see that talking with people who unable to see that selfish self-interest is not the answer. I would march for Gay and Lesbian rights - not because I am lesbian, but because no one should have the right to tell another how to live - exceptions children -pedophiles have no right to hurt children.

    I would march for adoptees rights or fathers rights. Or for recognition of the foster children in our country that have no rights whatsoever.

    To say that we are factionists - was to say we divide along lines that are not realistic. Yes, I do not comprehend how a mother from the BSE feels. Does that mother know how I feel? Does it matter? We are both victims of loss. We divide along lines of those that think adoption should be banned. Or along the lines of when relinquishment occured, or even along lines as simple as words. I was stating this:

    If we pay attention to all child's rights issues and mother's rights issues, then as a whole we become the group we should be. Well rounded, knowledgeable and more than capable of standing up for our beliefs, knowing the entirety of the consequences of what we do and say.

    THAT is all I meant.

  6. Lori, I guess you meant a whole lot that you did not say and that could not be deduced from what you did say previously. Sometimes what you say is not too clear. I still am not sure what mothers are supposed to "know."

  7. From Wikipedia, whatever happened to Baby M. Interesting.

    "When she turned 18 in March 2004, Melissa Stern formally terminated Whitehead's parental rights and formalized Elizabeth Stern's maternity through adoption proceedings.[1]

    As of March 2007[update], Melissa was a junior at George Washington University majoring in religious studies. She hopes to become a minister and has not ruled out having children of her own one day. 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 Stern 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]

  8. This is from Michelle Harrison: I still can't seem to get a comment online for your blog. it's the image thta won't open up for verification. so please add this in comments from me...

    We hold a different standard for men and women with regard to "intent" and children. I don't believe anyone can really predict with full certainty how they will react to having a child. It is not unusual for men to be against having a child, to be very upset about a pregnancy, and then to fully embrace the child when s/he is born. And no one holds it against him. No one says, "Well you didn't want it before so you can't have this child in your life now!" A woman can "imagine" she will not care, but when that child comes out of her body, whomever the source of the genes, she may fully embrace this child as hers. Likewise a woman may believe she will love the child she gives birth to, and then still have a hard time with acceptance.. This is why laws must give first mothers time to think and consider before they make a final decision about their child. It's why we don't and should not allow contracts over unborn children. I was involved in cases where even in gestational surrogacy the mother became attached to the child she carried and gave birth to. Genetic connection is both "real" and socially constructed.


  9. ITA with KimKIm. Totally.
    Surrogates, especially full gestational surrogates who carry other people's children to term for money are quite a different cup of tea from women who have become pregnant the 'old fashioned' way and are obliged to surrender because circumstances make it difficult or impossible for them to keep.
    I don't think these distinctions should be collapsed in order to maintain some kind of false principle of 'universal motherhood'. Motherhood is not a religion.

    Personally I find the idea of surrogacy of any sort very cynical, regardless of the fact that some surrogates consider it to be an altruistic act.
    But it's here to stay and we have to deal with it. So rather than just moaning and emoting about how terrible it is, I think people need to be thinking about how to draw up checks and balances that will best protect the interests of the children born as a result of artificial reproductive technology. And equally importantly, to protect poor and vulnerable women from exploitation.
    Even though other countries, such as the the UK, have relatively stringent surrogacy laws, much of the activity has been 'outsourced' to other countries such as India where the laws are lax or non-existent.

    Of course, you can't ban turkey basters.
    I'm a fan of turkey basters :- )

    Little Snowdrop

  10. Re: some of the later comments. Having a child for someone else is simply not the same thing as "having a child." Planning, executing, and giving birth to a child who is neither connected to genetically to oneself (the prior discussion) nor intended for oneself to raise is not the same thing--emotionally or conciously--as getting pregnant and giving birth and being uncertain about whether to raise or relinquish. For one thing, surrogacy is for hire. Quite frankly, it's the difference between being a call girl and being somebody's girlfriend or wife. Simply stating over and over again, "It is all the same; they're all mothers" fails to capture the very real legal and moral differences.
    Again, it may be distasteful. But distasteful is not illegal.

  11. Maryanne, mothers should "know" what their rights are, how the laws about a child's rights or another mother's rights, no matter what the origin of the child is, affects them, their children and their children's children.

    What we don't know, can and does hurt us.

    If a biological mother of a lesbian couple has no right to her child, even though the child has no biological connection to the other mother (in the case sited), is this no different than stepparents rights? Does this mean that if you have a child, marry a man and divorce him, that he will have the right to sue for visitation and custody? It can.

    Does not the act of surogacy for cash not make our children "chattel" and therefore legal to buy and sell? Would this not affect the adoption industry in a positive way? Making the children product? Or could it completely revolutionize the industry by simply paying young, ignorant women or women in desparate straights to carry a child - theirs or someone else's to term - and simply receive monetary compensation with no recourse, no thought to the actual child?

    All of these things, we as mothers, especially since we know what the loss really is, we should know.

    I am sorry about being obtuse. I will attempt to be more clear in my posts.

  12. I agree with what Michelle says, both about first time mothers being given adequate time to consider and about not allowing contracts over the unborn. I think the same rules should apply to conventional adoption too.
    But I also think that her arguments re. intent come close to denying surrogates moral agency, something which poses a different kind of threat to women.

    Little Snowdrop

  13. "Does this mean that if you have a child, marry a man and divorce him, that he will have the right to sue for visitation and custody? It can."

    Lori, I think the difference is that this child was produced IN their marriage. That was the legal setting and intent. To me, this is strictly a case of divorced parents fighting over custody. In order for a judge to invalidate that, he or she has to say that the family wasn't a family or the marriage wasn't a marriage.

  14. Lori wrote:
    "If a biological mother of a lesbian couple has no right to her child, even though the child has no biological connection to the other mother (in the case sited), is this no different than stepparents rights? Does this mean that if you have a child, marry a man and divorce him, that he will have the right to sue for visitation and custody? It can."

    I can see many situations where this would be a good thing, if the steparent of either sex loved the child, had made a commitment to that child, and was in no way unfit or dangerous. There could be situations where the stepparent might be a more fit parent than the biological parent, and the law should leave that option open for judges to decide on a case by case basis. In a case where both parents are fit, some kind of visitation should be in order, especially where the child has had a long relationship with the stepparent. Don't you know people where Dad took off when the kid was a baby, and stepdad (or stepmom) had been there parent in every sense but biological for years? I know several.

    Given the whole story of the lesbian case previously mentioned here, I'd rather see the child with the non-biological mother than with the bio-mom who seems to be a vengeful religious fanatic.
    Read about it here:

    I find surrogacy distasteful and probably morally wrong, but as Snowdrop said it is not going to go away, and laws need to be in place to protect children created this way as much as possible, and to protect desperately poor women like those in India to be exploited by this industry.

    I still do not see why mothers need to "know" about this stuff and be concerned any more than anyone else. Surrogacy poses no threat to me, or anyone I know or to motherhood in general.

    It feels kinda like the argument against gay marriage that legalizing it will somehow affect heterosexual marriage, when the two things have nothing to do with each other and there is no effect.

    Surrogacy for cash is wrong and that is why we need laws to regulate it and take the profit out of it. In that sense it is like adoption, that also needs the profit motive removed, but I do not see how surrogacy makes adoption worse or more venal. Divorce custody is even less connected to adoption. Each is its own thing with its own problems, not one big issue for mothers.

  15. Here's another link to the article from the Washington Post, "About Isabella" by April Witt:
    Quite apart from the 'human interest' aspects of this very sad story, it contains some interesting information re. recent custody law differences and changes between Vermont and Virginia.

    Little Snowdrop

  16. Ooops, silly me. I had the same problem as Maryanne. Of course, just put l after the htm

    But then I expect everybody else has realized that already.

    Little Snowdrop

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.



COMMENTS ARE MODERATED. Our blog, our decision whether to publish.

We cannot edit or change the comment in any way. Entire comment published is in full as written. If you wish to change a comment afterward, you must rewrite the entire comment.

We DO NOT post comments that consist of nothing more than a link and the admonition to go there.