If everything goes as Harriett Blankfeld plans, one dozen Washington-area women will be bearing babies for infertile couples by spring. Her 1-year-old National Center for Surrogate Parenting (NCSP) in Chevy Chase has arranged three confirmed pregnancies, and Blankfeld is confident that the other nine women undergoing artificial insemination will conceive soon.

"My goal," says the Columbia, Md., homemaker, "is to have offices around the country, and maybe in England, the Middle East and Western Europe. I want to see this company become the Coca-Cola of the surrogate parenting industry."

NCSP is one of an increasing number of organizations--and the first in the Washington area--to offer this service, which although still controversial, has been called one of America's "growth industries." An infertile Lanham woman, Sharon Whiteley, plans to open the area's second such group--Surrogate Motherhood, Inc.--in Columbia within a month.

As matchmakers in the age of infertility, these groups find "surrogate mothers" willing to bear a child for a couple in which the wife is infertile. Couples pay anywhere from $20,000 to $45,000 for the entire procedure. This generally includes medical and legal expenses, psychological counseling, life insurance and miscellaneous expenses such as maternity clothes and transportation. The surrogate receives about $10,000 to $13,000 to carry the baby and then relinquish her parental rights. The father assumes custody with his wife, who legally adopts the infant.

Although the practice is as old as the Bible (Abraham's wife Sarah could not conceive and sent her husband to sleep with her maid Hagar, who bore them Ishmael), a Louisville, Ky., gynecologist and a Dearborn, Mich., attorney are credited as the modern pioneers in the booming baby-making business. Both started their services after childless couples sought their help and made national headlines when reporters picked up on their ads soliciting surrogates.

"We've had about 40 babies so far," says Kentucky attorney Katie Brophy, who co-founded Surrogate Family Services (formerly Surrogate Parenting Associates, Inc.) in January 1980, with infertility specialist Dr. Richard Levin. "We're now working with doctors in about eight states. We've got about a dozen surrogates trying to conceive and about nine more standing by."

"There are about 20 surrogate parenting services in the country today," says Michigan attorney Noel P. Keane, who has arranged for the births of nearly two dozen babies over the past six years and published his experiences in a book, The Surrogate Mother. "By now there are probably 100 children who've been born this way, and by the end of this year there may be as many as 500. It's a giant, giant thing."

The secret of surrogate mothering's success is "the large infertility problem and shortage of adoptable children," says California attorney William Handel, a director of the Surrogate Parent Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit information clearinghouse that receives "10 to 20 letters" daily.

"About one in six couples has a fertility problem. Adoption agencies have five- to seven-year waiting lists. In cases where the male is infertile, artificial insemination by a donor is a widely accepted alternative. But even more females than males are infertile. Until surrogate parenting came along, there was no similar procedure."

A major risk of the arrangement, says Handel--whose law firm has arranged six surrogate births and 12 pregnancies--is that "there is no law regulating surrogate payments anywhere in the world. It's like when the first cars were put on the road; it was unclear whether to recognize them as horses or as carriages." If existing laws regarding "baby-selling" were applied in certain states, he says, "surrogate mothering may even be a felony--although no one's ever been prosecuted."

The law is just now catching up with the complexities posed by medical technology, notes New York attorney Doris Jonas Freed, chairwoman of the American Bar Association's Family Law Section Committee on Child Custody. "Until recently, children born through artificial insemination were considered illegitimate in most states."

Although bills have been introduced in several states both to authorize and to outlaw surrogate parenting arrangements, "so far none have passed," she says. "But there is an established public policy in most states against profiteering in the adoption of babies." State attorney generals could use these laws, she claims, to try and put surrogate parenting organizations out of business.

In 1981, Kentucky's attorney general filed "a friendly lawsuit," says assistant attorney general Joe Johnson, "to clarify what is and what is not legal." That suit is now in abeyance pending the outcome of a current case that will test the same points of law. Judgment is expected, he says, by late spring.

Philadelphia attorney Burton Satzberg contends that "baby-selling" statutes would not affect surrogate parenting arrangements, "because we're not selling babies. We're selling service."

Satzberg represents the 2-year-old Surrogate Mothering, Ltd., which has arranged one birth and about a dozen pregnancies. "The contract for service is signed before there is a child in being," he says. "There are no under-the-table payments. It's all spelled out. All it does is give an infertile female the same right as an infertile male to have a child by donor insemination."

Attorney Freed, however, claims that since no regulations govern the practice, contracts between couples and surrogates "have no validity under the law. If a surrogate wants to renege and keep the baby, the contract would not hold up in court. What judge would sever the tie between a mother and her child?"

In 1981 a California woman did back out of the surrogate mother agreement she had signed with a New York couple represented by Michigan attorney Keane. The father gave up his effort to win custody of the baby, Keane told reporters, because "the extraordinary publicity" attached to the case would make it difficult for the child to "lead a normal life."

Should a surrogate change her mind, argues Louisville attorney Brophy, "it would come down to your basic custody battle between the natural father and the natural mother. A lot of states have abolished the 'tender years' presumption that assumes an infant does best with its mother. The overall decision would be what is in the child's best interests."

Brophy calls these questions "largely rhetorical," noting that none of her firm's surrogates has ever changed her mind. As NSPC's Blankfeld puts it: The key to success for any company offering pregnancy by proxy "is screening and selecting good, responsible, intelligent, healthy, emotionally stable surrogates."

Like most responsible surrogate-parenting services, NCSP in Chevy Chase selects "a fraction, maybe three of every 100" women interviewed as potential surrogates. Their typical surrogate is a married mother in her mid-twenties. She must pass a physical exam, and--with her husband or "significant other"--must pass a psychological exam. NCSP pays for the surrogate's representation by an attorney of her choice prior to signing contracts. The company is establishing a surrogate support group for the pregnant women as well as one for the surrogate's husbands or boyfriends.

"The surrogate mother's main motive," maintains Blankfeld, "is the desire to give the gift of life. Most of them have friends or family who struggled with infertility. The second motive, of course, is money. I always ask what they plan to do with the money, since that's a good indication of their values. They want to go back to school or buy a house or send their children to private school."

Blankfeld says she has "no idea" yet what her profit will be on each birth.

The biggest misconception about surrogates, she says, "is that they're stupid women who can't do anything else but make babies. But that's not true. These are very intelligent, highly committed, generous women. When you consider that the whole process takes anywhere from 18 months to two years, they're only making 78 cents an hour."

Blankfeld, 36, decided to open her surrogate service when her own two children reached school age. "I was at the point where I needed to decide what I was going to do with my life." A native of Baltimore, she had attended the University of Maryland studying "as little as possible," and worked as the assistant to the director of an insurance company before quitting to have children.

"I have close friends and relatives who can't have children," she says, "and my own mother couldn't have any more children after me. I know how it hurts." When she heard about surrogate mothering, "it seemed like a fantastic idea, so I started to investigate.

"It's not a run-of-the-mill, 9-to-5 job. People call you at one in the morning, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes upset."

So far, says Blankfeld, the job's "biggest kick" has been calling couples to tell them their surrogate is pregnant. "They are so excited it's unreal. It makes all the worrying and arranging and sleepless nights worthwhile. You know that's one child coming into the world who will be very deeply loved."