PARIS -- Calling it "a form of slavery," the French health minister has effectively banned surrogate motherhood arrangements in France.

At the request of health minister Miche`le Barzach, the French Justice Ministry late last week took steps to dissolve the three private agencies here that have been arranging the controversial form of conception.

Under a surrogacy arrangement, an infertile couple contracts with a "surrogate mother" located by an agency to bear a child for them through artificial insemination with the husband's sperm. A fee of several thousand dollars is normally paid by the couple to the surrogate mother and to the intermediary agency.

One of the French agencies, Alma-Mater in Marseille, had so far arranged the birth of 66 infants through the use of "meres porteuses" or "meres de substitution."

Surrogate motherhood was the issue in the celebrated "Baby M" trial in New Jersey, in which Mary Beth Whitehead, who bore the child and gave her to William and Elizabeth Stern for a $10,000 fee, sought unsuccessfully to recover her.

The action by the French government was precipitated by France's own Baby M-style case, which has received wide media coverage in the past month. A young woman from Lyon known only as "Anne-Marie," learning she was pregnant and wishing to receive some money in return for giving up her child, had sought out the Alma-Mater agency. At the birth of the baby, Anne-Marie received 50,000 francs ($8,300).

Anne-Marie has been desperately trying to annul the contract and retrieve her child from the infertile couple to whom it was turned over. Her pleas and tears have been recorded by the television news shows.

Although not technically a surrogate mother case, Anne-Marie's story has served to publicize the issue. Two years ago the French national committee on ethics had declared its opposition to the practice and warned that surrogate mothers could be exploited materially and psychologically. But the committee did not recommend any changes in the current laws that already banned child trade and forbade the encouraging of parents to abandon their children at birth. Successive health ministers had not moved to stop the practice.

Barzach, a popular activist minister, discussed her action against the surrogacy agencies on a television program Sunday night. A former gynecologist herself, she said: "To me it seems elementary. It is a form of slavery. What's causing the problem is the commerce, the existence of an intermediary.

"It is a commerce in children, and that is absolutely shocking," she continued. "We just want to apply the law so that a trade in children does not develop."

Infertile couples in France have been paying between 25,000 and 30,000 francs ($4,100 to $5,000) for a surrogate arrangement, with usually about 7,500 francs going to the agency. The Justice Ministry's action only affects agencies involved in the practice, not individuals who make their own arrangements.

Dr. Sacha Geller, director of Alma-Mater, said the health minister was making "a major mistake" and that "if she were sterile, she would think differently."

Barzach said it was not the intention of the government to prevent, for example, a woman from carrying a baby for her sister. What happens in "intimate" circumstances, she said, is not for the government to interfere with. "But from the moment where there is an intermediary and commerce, it would seem to me vital to put a stop to it."