Whose Child Is This?

Why do biological parents have prerogatives?

You’ve decided to have a child, conceived and gestated her, and given birth. Now what? You hold your child, gaze upon her in awe, feed her, kiss her—her, the child you gave birth to. It’s so important that you do all these things with the right child that every baby wears an identification bracelet in the hospital nursery, and mix-ups are regarded as a total fiasco.

Are mix-ups really a fiasco? Most people think so, including the very rare person who is involved in one. Sue McDonald and Marti Miller were both born in Wisconsin in 1951, and raised in the same small town. Mary Miller, who gave birth to Sue, suspected a mix-up when she brought her new baby home from the hospital and found she weighed two pounds less than she did at birth. Mary Miller hadn’t actually seen the baby that came out of her uterus because she had given birth under full anesthesia—a common practice at the time. The baby had accidentally been left in the delivery room when Kay McDonald gave birth—and was accidentally interchanged with the second baby. Mary Miller’s husband didn’t want her to make a fuss and embarrass their doctor, so he asked her to put her suspicions aside. Then Mary suffered a serious illness, which put the possible mix-up in the background. Blond, bouncy Marti didn’t fit well into the large Miller family, who were all dark-haired, serious, artistic, and fervently religious. Dark-haired and introverted, Sue didn't fit well into the smaller McDonald family, who were blond, cheerful, and outgoing. It took Mary Miller over forty years to become convinced of her doubts and to reveal to Sue and Marti that their biological parents weren’t who they thought they were.

As much as history took precedence by that point, and the parent-child pairings didn’t change, there was emotional pain all around. Speaking to Jake Halpern, the journalist who reported this story for the National Public Radio show This American Life in 2008, Kay McDonald said this about Mary Miller:

If I had as strong a feeling as she did that I had the wrong baby, I would have pursued it. I don’t care whether my husband obj ected or not. I feel like I should have made a wrong into a right. I only- had this one daughter. And she had five daughters. In fact, we weren’t even sure we’d have another child. So, of course, we were elated when I did get pregnant. And then to think that I didn’t get to raise the one that I had wanted so much.

The way she expresses herself makes it clear she didn’t simply want a child, she wanted the particular child she had carried for nine months—and she says this despite loving the child she raised and being very clear in her mind that that one is now her daughter.

Some say no, such mix-ups aren’t especially tragic. They think we only care so much about "the right child” being paired with "the right parent” because of spurious and harmful ideas about biological ties. If you take home a child you didn’t give birth to, they say, nothing has gone seriously wrong, apart from the inevitable confusion about the child’s medical history. They think attaching importance to biology has a multitude of negative ramifications, especially for parents who want to adopt and children who would be better off being adopted. Thoroughgoing skeptics about biological ties think children are basically interchangeable.

We will come to the skeptics in chapter 8, but here I’ll assume that common sense is correct. Biological parents are the presumptive custodians of the specific children they bring into the world. It’s with good reason that hospitals now take greater care to avoid mix-ups. Furthermore, I’ll assume that biological parents have prerogatives even when they are in competition with other potential caregivers, and even when a case can be made that the others would make better parents. The very strong presumption is that children grow up wherever they land, not where it would have been better for them to land.

The idea that babies should be awarded to the best available parent, not left with their progenitors, has often been acted upon, either explicitly or implicitly. Often it has been young, unmarried mothers who were forced to give up their offspring, "for the good of the child" Heartbreaking stories of maternal loss are collected in Ann Fessler’s book The Girls Who Went Away, an oral history of the thousands of young women who disappeared into homes for unwed mothers prior to the sexual revolution and feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Pressure and deception were often involved in separating these women from their children, whether implicitly or explicitly. Recounting their loss, the biological mothers speak of an anguish that never completely goes away.

If you agree that biological parents are entitled to their offspring, you might think these prerogatives are so obvious as to be beyond explanation or analysis. It’s simply natural and self-evident that a new mother is entitled to the newborn child who emerged from her body. But let’s not abandon the stance of the philosophical parent, even here. What is the best explanation why it matters which baby goes home with which parents? Why do biological parents have the prerogative to raise the child they brought into the world?

In a nutshell, the best explanation seems to be this: children are second selves of the people they come from (a notion I first introduced in chapter 1). A mix-up would split you from yourself, or a part of yourself. If the babies get mixed up, you might nevertheless regard the changeling (so to speak) as a second self, but you would see yourself as mistaken, if and when the facts came to light. The baby you gave birth to is the one you meant to regard as a second self. Because of a particular baby’s ties to you, that baby and no other should be brought to your room. And not only that—of course. Your desire to raise that baby must normally be respected, even if a potentially better caregiver is waiting in the wings. (We’ll come back to "better off elsewhere” scenarios in chapter 8, looking at a number of examples.)

A lot rides on this notion of children being part of their parents’ wider identities. Does it really make sense? Does it really help make sense of which children belong with which parents? To begin with, we need to get a grip on the talk of "second selves.” A mother who has just given birth to a child sees that child as a self or as part of herself. Which means ... what? We need to know in more detail, because the thought that a child is another self has many manifestations over time. It’s relevant to which child you bring home and also to how we raise our children (as I will argue in chapter 9).

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