Because of an editing error, it was reported incorrectly yesterday that William and Elizabeth Stern were not in New Jersey Supreme Court during oral arguments in the appeal of a ruling giving them custody of a child born under contract by surrogate mother Mary Beth Whitehead. (Published 9/16/87)

TRENTON, N.J., SEPT. 14 -- The legal tug-of-war for custody of 17-month-old Melissa Elizabeth Stern, better known as Baby M, resumed today as lawyers for surrogate mother Mary Beth Whitehead asked the state Supreme Court to return the child to her.

The high court will review the landmark lower court decision upholding the contract under which Whitehead bore the child, conceived by artificial insemination, for William and Elizabeth Stern of Tenafly.

Bergen County Superior Court Judge Harvey R. Sorkow awarded custody March 31 to the Sterns and stripped Whitehead of parental rights. The Supreme Court later restored her weekly visits with the child until the appeal is resolved.

Whitehead's lawyer, Harold J. Cassidy, told the court the surrogate contract made his client "nothing but a uterus. She is being penalized because she is incapable of being used as the object called for in the contract."

The Sterns' attorney, Gary Skoloff, asked for an unequivocal ruling on the validity of such contracts. "The state, the country is waiting to see what this court decides," he said.

Public opinion polls at the time showed that a majority of Americans agreed with Sorkow's decision. So did President Reagan.

But 21 friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed on Whitehead's behalf by an unusual women's alliance ranging from Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum, to 23 feminists including Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

Whitehead, 30, and her 10-year-old daughter, Tuesday, came to court today in matching black dresses with white lace collars. They were accompanied by Whitehead's husband, Richard Whitehead, from whom she separated in August, citing the strain of the trial on their marriage. Her husband's problems with alcohol and unemployment were dealt with in detail during the trial.

Whitehead would not say whether they had reconciled. She looked grave during the hearing but smiled when both attorneys and the baby's court-appointed guardian told the judges that she was not an "unfit mother."

Whitehead said afterwards that she would try to live with whatever decision is rendered but would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. The Sterns did not appear in court.