Patricia Dickey, a single 20-year-old Olney, Md., woman was artificially imseminated this past weekend at a New York City fertility lab.

When the child is born, Dickey has promised to hand over the child for adoption to the biological father and his wife, who is unable to have her own child.

Dickey will be a surrogate mother, one of only a handful of known or publicized cases in which a couple with fertility problems has found someone to bear the husband's child.

Every year thousands of married couples use artificial insemination to bear their own children, but surrogate arrangements with a third party are very rare.

And Dickey is willing to talk openly about her role as the stand-in mother.

"No one can understand why I'm doing it and not getting paid," said Dickey, a 1977 Sherwood High School graduate who answered a newspaper advertisement last October and decided to help a Delaware couple who yearned to have a child, but were tired of waiting to adopt. "But I had a close friend who couldn't have a baby, and I know how badly she wanted one. . . . It's just something I wanted to do."

Even though there is biblical precedent for surrogate mothers -- Abraham fathered a child by a surrogate -- Dickey's decision is sure to rekindle the legal and ethical debate over the spector of test-tube babies and other Brave New Worlds open to an estimated six million American couples afflicted with infertility problems. Surrogate motherhood, one of the legitimate, if unorthodox avenues sometimes used to solve such dilemmas, has sparked controversy among doctors, lawyers and clergy.

"The main issue that needs to be confronted squarely is what the three people would do if the woman carrying the child decided she did not want to give it up," says Leroy Walters, director of the Kennedy Institute's Center for Bioethics at Georgetown University.

Dickey feels sure that won't be a problem. "I'm very strong-willed," she says. "If I set my mind to something, I can go through with it."

At first there were discussions about paying Dickey from $10,000 to $35,000 for her surrogate role. But even after she found out that the law in Maryland prohibits payment for such roles, she didn't change her mind.

Such determination -- "my mother would call me rebellious" -- has made her life almost unbearable at home, she says. Her father hasn't spoken to her for months. Her mother is baffled and angry. Dickey plans to move out to an apartment of her own soon, and live off meager savings, she says.

"I don't see how she can go through with it," says her mother, who calls herself a conventional, old-fashioned person. "But Pat has always been somewhat of a humanitarian, a crusader. She'll go out of her way to help the underdog. She has a large heart -- but in the long run, she's the one who usually winds up being hurt. She's genuine, but I don't think she's surveyed the long-range plans as deeply as she thinks she has."

"I'm just so thrilled to have found somebody out there who can understand my situation," says the adoptive mother-to-be, a Delaware business administrator who had a hysterectomy before her marriage. "Pat is such a good person. We couldn't have found anyone better to have our child. She's God-sent."

The surrogate matchmaker in this case is Noel Keane, 41, a Dearborn, Mich., attorney whose face is familiar on the television talk show circuit as the man who served up the lively kaffee klatsch topic of surrogate motherhood to Phil Donahue. He represents about a dozen couples who have found or are actively seeking surrogates to bear their children. For a $5,000 fee, he puts willing "host-mothers" in touch with childless couples and, later, after the baby is born, sees to the legal adoption.

His media tours have brought him 1,000 letters from couples in search of surrogates, he says. But he has been able to find only a handful of women like Dickey willing to do it for free. "If we could pay women $5,000 to $10,000, everyone could have a surrogate," he says.

With the exception of Kentucky, adoption laws in most states that are designed to keep the lid on Black market baby rackets also outlaw payments to surrogates, he says.

Prospective parents like the Delaware couple, of course, agree to pay the medical, legal and travel expenses of the surrogate, which can run upwards of $20,000, if a fee is included, says Keane.

Surrogate motherhood also suggests a myriad of legal and ethical tangles: What if the child has a birth defect? What if Pat Dickey changes her mind in the delivery room and wants to keep the child?

"She could walk out the door with the baby and probably stick the father for child support," says Keane, who has drawn up a nonbinding "memorandum of agreement" between Dickey and the Delaware couple. "In it," Keane says, "Pat understands she is to have a child as a result of being artificially inseminated and return it to the husband and wife through the adoption process."

Keane says the couple is especially fortunate in Pat's case since they have found a surrogate with the adoptive mother's physical features: Dickey has blond hair and blue eyes. As for the adoptive mother-to-be, says Keane: "She's a knockout."

Last October, Dickey responded to an ad for surrogates Keane placed in The Washington Post. He put her in touch with the Delaware couple, who drove to Washington for their first rendezvous with Dickey in the coffee shop of a Gaithersburg hotel.

"I liked them a lot," said Dickey, recalling that first encounter with the father and mother-to-be. "They are fantastic people. She and I are a lot alike; we look alike . . . And she's outspoken like I am. Her husband is quiet and sensitive -- and handsome."

The couple ordered coffee. Pat pushed away the menu, she didn't want a thing. "I was too nervous."

She asked about their lives; they asked about hers. She told them about growing up with a younger sister and brother, and two quarter horses, Red and Chief, on her parents' 200-acre farm, about winning a silver medal in the Junior Olympics' 440-yard relay, and about a painful split with a boyfriend.

"I've always been independent," she says. "My parents would call me "rebellious.' But I've just always done things differently, not like most women."

"I'm a true Leo," she says of her astrological sign. "Self-confident, very dominnering, strong-willed. I don't listen to anyone, just my intuition, and I won't do anything if I'm ordered to. But I'm very energetic. And I like doing things no one else does -- like having this baby."

A Catholic who has fallen away from the church, she plans to attend natural childbirth classes with a friend. "I believe in God and God knows it and that's all that matters."

She laughs. "In grade school, I wanted to become a nun -- but not anymore."

Instead, she worked at various menial jobs, including a nurse's aide position and as a $5-an-hour construction laborer.

She also would like some day to have her own child and keep it to raise alone without what she calls the "hassles of a husband." The Delaware father-to-be, she says, in fact, agreed to make his semen available for her future insemination, as long as he does not know anything about it.

"I'm not happy with my life the way it is now," she admits. "But I plan to do something about it."

The baby is the first step.

She's already tried once for the same Delaware couple. A Nov. 2 insemination at the New York fertility lab, IDANT, America's largest sperm bank, ended in a miscarriage six weeks later.

Last year in the United States, about 10,000 children were born using the artificial insemination method. But virtually all involved married couples and no surrogate. After Pat was injected with the father-to-be's semen, the couple entered the examination room and held her hand. Then they went out to celebrate over dinner.

Since Dickey is receiving no payment, Keane says the adoption should proceed without a hitch.

The Delaware couple ruled out adopting a child from a state agency after finding out there would be up to a five-year wait. There was also the father's ego to consider.

"It may sound selfish," says the Delaware father-to-be," "but I want to father a child on my own behalf, leave my own legacy. And I want a healthy baby. And there just aren't any available. They're either retarded or they're minorities, black, Hispanic . . . That may be fine for some people, but we just don't think we could handle it."

They saw Keane on the Phil Donahue Show and retained him. A year later, he put them in touch with a woman from the Midwest. That didn't work. lIn October, they met Pat. She got pregnant from the first artificial insemination, but then miscarried.

They says they have not decided what to tell their friends when the baby is born and finally adopted -- whether to take off for nine months and return with a child, as it it happened naturally, or to tell friends the truth.

They don't plan to tell the child. Nor do they expect Pat to ever visit, once the baby is turned over in the delivery room. After the adoption papers are signed, she will have no more claim to it, says Keane.

"I'd never go to them and say, 'I want it back,'" says Pat.

If the baby is born with a defect, "it's still ours," says the husband. "We don't have a contract, but we have an agreement . . . ."

He adds, "I can't believe I'm doing it. My life has just gone on so normally, right through high school and college. I never had any big setbacks . . . There was a time when we felt we wouldn't have much of a chance to even adopt. This is a really wonderful thing."

Why is Pat Dickey allowing her role as a surrogate to be publicized?

"I'm sure the majority of people who read this story probably won't approve," says Pat. "That's their problem. I just want people who can't have children to know it can be done."