Admittedly, the economy is in bad shape, but somehow I never expected to see a new breed of entrepreneurs arrive on the scene: people offering motherhood for hire. While it isn't doing a land-office business quite yet, surrogate motherhood is an expanding market.

At the moment the star of the surrogates is Judy Stiver of Lansing, Mich., who was set up by a lawyer in her own cottage industry. According to her testimony, surrogate motherhood, pregnancy and delivery were a little bit like taking in a boarder. She was promised $10,000 to carry the baby to term and then deliver it to its reputed biological father, Alexander Malahoff of Queens, N.Y.

When asked why she decided to take this moonlighting job, she explained that she and her husband wanted some money to take a vacation and maybe fix up the house a bit . . . that sort of thing.

The baby was born last month with microcephaly, a head smaller than normal, which usually means he will be retarded. Suddenly, this most wanted child was a pariah. Baby Doe was put in a foster home. The Stivers claimed he wasn't theirs. Malahoff claimed he wasn't his.

Pretty soon there were blood tests and lawsuits all around and a climactic scene on a "Phil Donahue Show" that looked like a parody of a "Phil Donahue Show." Live and in color from Chicago --Whose baby is Baby Doe? Will the real father stand up please?--we learned the results of the blood test. Hang on to your seats: Malahoff was not the father, Judy's husband, Ray Stiver, was.

By any standard, this was a thriller with more identity crises than "HMS Pinafore." The fate of the baby was resolved right there on camera as the Stivers promised to bring him up just as if he were one of their own. So much for their vacation.

But for all its freakishness, I don't want to dismiss the story as just another human sideshow. This one was a long time in the making.

I don't know a soul who can't sympathize with the feelings and desires of an infertile couple. Over the past several years, we have grown used to reading about dramatic help for couples. By now artificial insemination seems routine, and in vitro fertilizations have been eased off the front page. We applaud their births as happy endings.

We have been, I think, numbed into regarding motherhood-for-hire as just another option. There are now at least eight and perhaps as many as 20 surrogate parenting services in the country. Anywhere from 40 to 100 children have been born by surrogate mothers paid between $5,000 and $15,000 in states where payment is legal. At least one entrepreneur aims to become "the Coca-Cola of the surrogate-parenting industry."

The tale out of Michigan was a jarring reminder that surrogate mothering is something qualitatively different, with hazards that we are just beginning to imagine.

Being a surrogate mother is not, as has been suggested, the "flip side" of artificial insemination. The infertile couple has contracted for more from a woman than an infusion of sperm. The law governing this business, governing this web of parenting, is murky.

If the Stiver story has a bizarre twist, there are other and equally mind-boggling risks. What if the biological mother decides, as at least two have, to keep the baby herself? Would a court of law hold that the contract was more sacred than the mother's rights?

What impact is there on a couple when the man seeks another woman to bear his child? The Malahoffs, it should be noted, separated when the child he believed was his was conceived.

What do you tell a child when he or she asks, "Where did I come from?" And what if the baby isn't perfect? Who holds the final responsibility for a child conceived through a contract?

In the Stivers home, the boarder is now a son. They've learned something about chance.

We've learned something about a business and an idea that encourages people to regard parents as customers rather than caretakers. We've learned something about people who look upon a motherhood as biological work on a reproduction line. We've learned to be wary of people who regard babies as just another product for an eager and vulnerable market.