F-Words: Fairness and Freedom in Contract Law
As I read “Facing Limits,” Larry’s chapter on unenforceable bargains, I had to pause and smile at the following line:
People often think that fairness is a court’s chief concern, but that is not always true in contract cases (p. 57).
I still remember the first time someone used the word “fair” in Douglas Baird’s Contracts class. “Wait, wait,” he cried, with an impish grin. “This is Contracts! We can’t use ‘the f-word’ in here!”1 Of course, Larry also correctly recognizes the flip side of the coin. If courts are not adjudicating contracts disputes based on what is “fair,” we might think that “all contracts are enforced as made,” but as Larry points out, “that is not quite right, either” (p. 57).
Pedagogically, Contracts in the Real World is effective due to its pairings of contrasting casebook classics, juxtaposed against relevant modern disputes. In nearly every instance, Larry does an excellent job of matching pairs of cases that present both sides of the argument. I don’t mean to damn with faint praise, because I love the project overall, but I feel like Larry may have missed the boat with one pairing of cases.
Facing Limits on Surrogacy Agreements
As I mentioned, the chapter on Facing Limits is in part about the difficulty of balancing fairness, or equitable intuitions, against freedom of parties to be bound by their agreements. Larry pairs In re Baby M, a case where the New Jersey’s highest court invalidated a surrogacy agreement with Johnson v. Calvert, a case where the California Supreme Court upholds such an agreement. I’m troubled that the Court in Baby M could be on the wrong side of both fairness and freedom.
In re Baby M was arguably the first case on surrogacy agreements to reach national prominence. The court found unenforceable a surrogacy agreement between William and Elizabeth Stern, who hoped to raise a child that Elizabeth could not bear, and Mary Beth Whitehead, who wanted to give another couple “the gift of life” and agreed to bring William’s child, Baby M, to term. Mrs. Whitehead and her then-husband Richard were in tight financial straits, and the surrogacy deal promised $10,000, “on surrender of custody of the child” to the Sterns.
Once she gave birth, Mrs. Whitehead found it difficult to part with the baby girl she called Sara Elizabeth, but the Sterns planned to name Melissa. To avoid relinquishing the child, the Whiteheads fled to Florida with the baby. When Baby M was returned to the Sterns and everyone made it to court, the trial judge determined that the interests of the baby were best served by granting custody to the Sterns. The Supreme Court of New Jersey agreed with that assessment, but on its way to that conclusion, rejected the validity of the surrogacy contract itself, in which all parties stipulated, prior to the birth of Baby M, that it was in the child’s best interest to live with the Sterns.
The Supreme Court’s decision ostensibly turned on the unenforceability of the contract because, even in America, “there are, in a civilized society, some things that money cannot buy” (p. 55). But the decision is full of language suggesting that, in the Court’s opinion, Mrs. Whitehead didn’t know what she was doing. In the very paragraph that the Court assumed that she could consent to the contract, the Court marginalized her capacity to consent.
The Court bought into two tropes often trotted out by those who aspire to protect the poor from themselves: the coercive effects of money, and the inability of the poor to fully understand the consequences of their decisions. The Court was troubled that Mrs. Whitehead, “[t]he natural mother,” did not “receive the benefit of counseling and guidance to assist her in making a decision that may affect her for a lifetime.” The Court was perhaps suspicious she could not. After noting the distressing state of her financial circumstances, the Court posited that “the monetary incentive to sell her child may, depending on her financial circumstances, make her decision less voluntary.”
Fairness and Freedom
It strikes me as unfair to conclude that a mother of two is incapable of considering what it might mean to give birth to a third. Holding the surrogate to the bargain can seem unfair at the difficult moment where she hands over the baby, but I struggle to see how it is any less unfair to allow the parents to invest their hearts and energy into planning for a baby that will come, but will not become theirs.
Turning to the question of the coercive effect of money, the problem with paternalistic protections is they often protect the neediest from the thing they ostensibly need the most. Many interested parties find ways to make money on adoption and surrogacy. It’s puzzling, if we are truly serious about protecting the needy, that we would protect them from also acquiring some of the money that we seem to assume they so desparately need.
Here’s another way to make the same point: in the wake of Baby M, some states allow surrogacy contracts, and some don’t. Hopeful parents who can afford to enter into surrogacy contracts will go to states, like California, where those contracts are enforced. Surrogacy providers who hope to make their money as an intermediary will focus on markets where their contracts will survive judicial scrutiny. Our potential surrogates, however, are more likely to be tied to the jurisdictions in which they reside, at least if the assumptions about poverty in the Baby M opinion are generalizable. So altruistic surrogates will be able to carry a child to term in every state, but those who desire to make a bargain can do so only in those states willing to recognize them. To me, that sounds neither free nor fair.
Larry takes some comfort in the common law inquiry into the best interests of the child, and with that I take no issue. In a case where the contract and the child’s interests are at loggerheads, it seems appropriate in the abstract for the best interests to be a heavy thumb on the scale, or even to trump the prior agreement. I’m just not sure that In re Baby M – a case where the Court knocked out the contract even though the contract terms and best interests were essentially in line — is a case where the value of the best interest test are best brought to light.
Jake Linford is Assistant Professor of Law at the Florida State University College of Law. Some of his scholarship can be found on SSRN.
1 I may have slightly dramatized this exchange, although my classmates assure me I did not invent it from whole cloth.