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Attorney: Mary Beth Whitehead And Husband Separate

August 5, 1987

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ Surrogate mother Mary Beth Whitehead, citing the stress from her losing custody battle for the child she bore under contract, has separated from her husband, her attorney said Tuesday.

The lawyer, Harold Cassidy, said in a prepared statement that the couple has no immediate intention of reuniting.

″Mrs. Whitehead believes that the extraordinary stress placed upon her marriage and the public discussion of private matters rendered Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead’s marriage an inevitable casualty of this unusual case,″ Cassidy said.

Cassidy and other attorneys were not immediately available to comment on whether the separation would affect appeals pending in the custody case.

Mrs. Whitehead, 30, was stripped of her parental rights when a state judge ruled in March that the contract she had signed with William and Elizabeth Stern was valid.

Under the $10,000 contract, the Brick Township homemaker had agreed to be artificially inseminated with the sperm of Stern and bear him and his wife a child.

When the child - known as Baby M - was born March 27, 1986, however, Mrs. Whitehead changed her mind about the deal and fled to Florida, where she remained until authorities tracked her down and returned the baby to the Sterns.

Her decision to back out of the deal set the stage for the landmark custody suit filed by the Sterns.

During the trial, Mrs. Whitehead argued that she and her husband, Richard, could offer as stable and loving a home for the baby as the Sterns.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Harvey R. Sorkow granted custody of the child to the Sterns and allowed Mrs. Stern to adopt the girl, now called Melissa Elizabeth Stern.

Mrs. Whitehead appealed and the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case directly. Oral arguments are set for Sept. 14. Meanwhile, the surrogate mother has been allowed to visit with the girl for one hour each week.

Cassidy’s statement on the separation said he had informed the attorneys for the Sterns, the child’s court-appointed guardian and the Supreme Court of the Whiteheads’ decision in a letter mailed Tuesday.

An attorney for the Sterns, Edward O’Donnell, said he was sorry about the separation but that it supported his case.

″During the course of the trial, we submitted proofs indicating that the Whitehead family suffered from instability and particularly marital friction. What we’ve just learned confirmed those proofs,″ he said.

O’Donnell would not comment on whether the separation would affect the appeal, and the baby’s court-appointed guardian was out of her office and could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Cassidy’s statement did not elaborate on the case and he was not in the office either Tuesday afternoon.

A spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, Susanne Lockwood, said the separation would not affect Mrs. Whitehead’s visitation rights.

Cassidy’s letter said Mrs. Whitehead has been hospitalized recently for a recurrence of an unspecified kidney illness she suffered shortly after giving birth to Baby M.

In his letter, Cassidy said, ″Mr. and Mrs. Whitehead love each other very much.″

The Whiteheads were married December 1973, when she was pregnant with the first of their two children.

During the trial, the Sterns’ attorneys portrayed Whitehead as a frequently unemployed sanitation worker with a drinking problem. His wife was characterized as an impulsive and narcissistic woman who is overly possessive of her children.

The marriage was described by the Sterns’ attorneys as troubled, punctured by other separations and economic difficulties.

However, the Whiteheads maintained that they could provide an extended family in which the baby could have siblings and caring relatives.

Their main contention, however, was that the bond between mother and child should not be broken.

The childless Sterns - he a biochemist and she a pediatrician - were characterized by the Whiteheads’ attorneys as cold and unloving, but their lawyers said the couple desperately wanted a family and could provide a more secure environment for Baby M.

Prominent feminist Betty Friedan, who recently joined a friend-of-the-court brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn Sorkow’s decision, said the separation should not affect the basic position Mrs. Whitehead is advocating.

″The basic principle we’re fighting for remains and that is that her rights and her personhood as a woman have been violated,″ she said. ″She is paying a terrible price.″

Meanwhile, the American Adoption Congress filed a brief in state Supreme Court asking that Mrs. Whitehead’s parental rights be reinstated.

″Baby M has the right not to be separated from the woman with whom she shares the most primal of human attachments - her natural mother,″ lawyer George B. Gelman said in the brief.

The congress is an unbrella group representing 75 chapters and 500 members dedicated to promoting ″openness and honesty in adoption.″ Two-thirds of the organization’s individual members are adoptees, according to the brief.