It was wonderful television: conflict, tragedy, suspense, an occasional laugh and the big, dramatic finish. Wednesday's Phil Donahue show was also a reminder, for those of us who needed reminding, that the surrogate-mother landscape is strewn with legal, moral, ethical and social land mines. One of them exploded right there on TV.
Judy Stiver had agreed to be artificially inseminated last April with sperm from Alexander Malahoff. She was to get $10,000 for her troubles. A month ago, she gave birth to a deformed baby. Malahoff said it wasn't his. While they argued their cases before Donahue's titillated audience, the word came in from the laboratory: sophisticated blood tests had established with absolute certainty that the baby couldn't be Malahoff's.
As befits television, most of the loose ends had been tied up by the end of the show. Malahoff was vindicated. Judy Stiver said she was happy with the finding and that she and her husband, Ray, would take the baby home to Lansing, Mich. (although she wouldn't rule out the possibility that she might later put him up for adoption).
Actually, this was a fairly easy case. Malahoff has a rare genetic trait that, according to the experts, would have been passed along to any offspring of his. Judy Stiver's baby didn't have that trait. What he did have was a disorder called microcephaly, an abnormally small head size usually associated with mental retardation. Ray Stiver revealed during the telecast that, during a previous marriage, he had fathered a son with a similar skull deformity. That baby was institutionalized and subsequently died.
But if Donahue's "Case of the Layaway Baby" ended with a fairly clear-cut conclusion, it is perfectly easy to imagine cases that would be far more difficult, legally and ethically. Suppose the baby really was Malahoff's, but that he balked at accepting and paying for a seriously deformed child. Suppose the blood tests had proven inconclusive. Suppose Judy Stiver had changed her mind, or demanded a bigger fee, during the first trimester of her pregnancy, threatening abortion if Malahoff didn't agree to renegotiate their contract. Suppose the surrogate's maternal instincts took over and she decided that she wanted to keep the baby that was demonstrably hers. Would a court force her to "sell" her child in keeping with her contract?
I often wondered why there is apparently less concern over the surrogate mother business than over in vitreo fertilization (test-tube babies) in which the husband's own sperm is used to fertilize his wife's egg, which is then implanted in her womb. I wondered, that is, until a right-to-lifer explained it: the in vitreo technique involves fertilizing several eggs, then implanting the healthiest of the lot. The rest are discarded, which, from the right-to-life point of view, amounts to mass murder. But the ethical problems involved in this technique seem to me small potatoes in comparison with the questions raised by surrogates.
I understand the urge that leads a couple with love to share to prefer sharing it with a child with its father's own blood. But considering the unforeseeable problems that could be involved (and considering, also, the number of homeless and unwanted children already available) I think I'd opt for adoption. That might not make good television, but, to me at least, it makes good sense.