BOSTON -- What are we to make of the lives left dangling like participles after the court's final sentences?
The New Jersey Supreme Court has sensibly concluded the legal drama of "Baby M." William Stern will retain custody of the daughter he calls Melissa. Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould will regain the title ''mother'' to the daughter she calls Sara. The $10,000 contract that brought about this toddler's conception is void.
Issues of motherhood -- one of the M words in this case -- were handled carefully by the court. A pregnant woman is more than a vessel, it ruled. A woman cannot sign away her maternal rights before birth. Even if Mary Beth Whitehead broke a promise to give up her child, the court wrote, ''We think it is expecting something well beyond normal human capabilities to suggest that this mother should have parted with her newly born infant without a struggle.''
Issues of money -- another M word most frequently heard -- were also resolved. ''It is unlikely that surrogacy will survive without money. We doubt that infertile couples in the low-income bracket will find upper-income surrogates,'' the court wrote. A surrogate-mother contract is simply baby selling and therefore ''illegal, perhaps criminal and potentially degrading to women.''
But there was a third M word scrawled all over this case -- M for Mess. And I'm afraid that no court ruling, however well-crafted, can reconstruct the lives and futures of the families caught up in the swirl of surrogacy. There were more people involved than mother, father, child.
Reading the decision, I couldn't help thinking of Elizabeth Stern, who will now not be allowed to adopt her husband's offspring. It was Dr. Stern's health concerns that prompted the search for a surrogate. From now on, she is to be what? -- a stepmother, foster mother, custodial mother -- to the toddler who calls her just plain mother. What subtle changes occur in a relationship when one spouse has a stronger claim to ''their'' child than the other?
Elizabeth Stern was court-determined to be an outsider in this biological tie. But how much further outside is Richard Whitehead? The husband who helped his wife abduct her baby, who stood by her, is now an ex-husband, with visitation rights to his own children and no visitation rights to hers. Indeed Richard, sterilized long ago and now divorced, appeared supportively in front of the cameras at his ex-wife's news conference. It is said that he looked raptly at the woman now visibly pregnant by her new husband.
As for the Whiteheads' two children -- Ryan, 13, and Tuesday, 12 -- I cannot imagine how they could come out of this unscathed. Baby M's life took over their own. These are children who watched a mother grow pregnant with a half sister she was to give away. They saw this mother turn everything upside down -- including their own lives -- to get that baby back. They have had to cope with that -- plus divorce, a new stepfather, another pregnancy. All in three years.
And then there is Baby M herself. In criticizing surrogacy, the court said: '' A child, instead of starting off its life with as much peace and security as possible, finds itself immediately in a tug of war.'' Even this high court cannot resolve all the tugs to come.
Mary Beth Whitehead-Gould said: ''I just can't see how four people loving her, five people loving her, can hurt her.'' But Mary Beth is not famous for her farsightedness. To share this child, to arrange visits, to put the baby's needs above their own arguments may not be possible for parents who cannot even agree on whether the toddler's name is Sara or Melissa.
The New Jersey Supreme Court applied a brake on the surrogate motherhood business. With dozens of laws being presented to state legislatures, with thousands of infertile couples rifling desperately through a file cabinet of options, this decision hasn't come a moment too soon. But a more powerful message may well come, not from the courthouse, but from the obvious human muddle, the emotional shambles we've all witnessed.
The Baby M legal case is finally over. But the families are smack dab in the middle of a lifelong Baby M story. The M that stands for Mess.
(c) 1988, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company