meaning of life,  the ethical life

sad stories and questions arising from them

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One situation I’ve been reading about online is the story of Veronica Rose, an American child just two years old. On New Years Veronica was handed over from her adoptive parents to her biological father. The details of the story are unclear. Veronica’s biological mother accuses the father of refusing to financially support her unless she marry him and so she said she had to give the child up for adoption because she couldn’t afford to raise Veronica herself. Veronica’s biological father says the biological mother cut off all contact and refused to answer his calls or communicate, so how was he supposed to offer support? The adoptive parents say the child has bonded with them and it is wrong to take her away. The court records are sealed so no one knows exactly why the judge gave custody to the father but there’s a possibility that the judge did so because the father is a member of the Cherokee nation and (an American) federal law overrules state laws when it comes to placing native children in nonnative homes. I don’t know the details of the story but that is fine. I cannot judge the right or wrong of the situation but I don’t have to. What interests me are the implications and issues that come up in the articles I’ve read about the situation.

Veronica’s mother is Latino, her father part Cherokee. Much is being made in the news articles about this because part of the justification for the federal law is that native children should be able to learn native culture. Supporters of the adoptive parents complain that a law would give precedence to Veronica’s native heritage over her Latino heritage. Yet what the law, though written to protect culture and community, doesn’t actually give precedence to her culture. It recognizes the Cherokee nation as having say over its own members.  Culture can’t be measured or defined clearly. Who can really say who is part of what culture or not? What is measured is membership in the Cherokee nation.

This brings back memories for me of university politics classes on ethics in international politics. If a country has laws that we think abuse its citizens, is it ethical for other countries to intervene? Do we give priority to national sovereignty or to our own notions of right and wrong? This is a case of a nation within a nation, but they are still a seperate group in a way.

I stare at my young children and try to imagine what they would go through if their lives changed drastically overnight, but I also believe that “children’s best interests” cannot be seen as more important than following the law. If a baby was stolen but then bonded with the kidnapper, the kidnapper would not be permitted to keep the child on the basis that the child has bonded with her. When parents divorce a judge might rule that both parents have the right to visit the child but the judge never rules that the parent must visit because the child has bonded with him/her and would be scarred otherwise. How do we judge a child’s best interest anyway? Would it not be in Veronica’s best interest if her adoptive parents and biological parents were made to move to the same town so that they could both take a part in her life? But we wouldn’t accept a court making that sort of decision, would we?

A child’s best interest and a parent’s best interest. I’ve read lots of comments in articles saying that when they conflict the parent should always give in to the child. They say Veronica’s father, Dusten Brown, should care more about his child’s interest and not disrupt her adoption. Ignoring for the moment the question of if that is really in Veronica’s best interest or not…. I find myself thinking of all the millions of times my own interest conflict with my children’s interests.

The supporters of the Capobianco family, Veronica’s adoptive parents, point out that there is research on attachment that proves how harmful this will be for Veronica. Yet older children are adopted into Canada and the United States, I guess on the assumption that they haven’t formed attachments or that their attachments they did make are not important. We do not make adults live their lives according to research, do we? If researched proved that children were better off not in daycare would we demand that no child be put in daycare? We have research that shows that smoking is harmful but we’re pretty slow at insisting all adults stop smoking. We have research that shows that BPA is harmful but its still in our canned food.

Some say that the biological father proved himself irresponsible by not doing the right things during the pregnancy. So I wonder… what actions are unforgivable? What type of actions do I think justify taking away parental rights? When is it legitimate to say “if you don’t do X, then you don’t deserve Y”? In some cases there are obvious abuse issues but the issue most frequently referenced to in comments on articles about Veronica is that the father was not involved in the last few months of pregnancy and the first four months of Veronica’s life. The accusation is abandonment. Does abandonment justify excluding a father forever from being able to care for his daughter? In divorce cases people may not be around for a while but still be granted visitation rights or custody at some point later.

Different states have different rules on what a father must do to maintain his parenting rights. Supposedly Dusten Brown did not meet the requirements of South Carolina, and that is why it is believed that he obtained custody only through the aid of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). It seems strange in some ways that historically an unmarried woman could not put a man’s name on her child’s birth certificate so that she couldn’t saddle some poor unfortunate sod with the responsibility/shame of a child. Now different places have come up with a bunch of hoops a father must go through in order to claim a child. Supposedly in Utah an unmarried father not only has to find a lawyer to register within two weeks of finding out that the mother might potentially give the child up for adoption, but he has to prove other things such as that he has the resources to parent. Is Utah justified in taking away the father’s natural rights to his child if the father does not register in time? Or are there such things as natural parental rights? Or are the rights just given by the state/community/etc?

There are lots of other fathers out there fighting to try to raise their children. Articles suggesting that laws need to be changed to give fathers better opportunities to claim their children are sometimes met with comments that to do so would encourage women to abort children or to have to raise the child herself (so as to not have to hand the child over to a man she believes would not be a good father.) The question that puzzles me then is who is best to decide whether a man would be a good father or not, a woman who knows the man but presumably has a lot of emotions about the man or a legal system which does not know the man but presumably lacks emotional entanglement?

One comment that keeps coming up in comments on articles about the Baby Veronica case is that this situation isn’t about laws or parents rights or anything, it is about a little girl. Those who say “hey, the laws say the father gets his daughter…” are criticized for being heartless and not seeing the young child’s suffering because of adults’ mistakes and choices. On one hand I tend to think it is good for Veronica and everyone else that we live in a world where laws are followed. I also think that it is only those actually involved in the case that need to think about Veronica. They are the ones who will make decisions affecting her. They can change things to be better or worse for her. I think the rest of us are free to, if we so choose, question the implications and other aspects of the situation.

As a totally noninvolved person, I ask myself, how much authority do we credit a law with? Does justice come from following the law, and (in any particular circumstance) did the courts follow or misinterpret the law? Or are laws arbitrary and if so, is the value of having law so great that they should be enforced regardless of their injustice? And if laws are arbitrary but not so valuable that they should be enforced regardless of their injustice then how should decisions be made and enforced?
There is a book called Baby Richard: A Four-Year-Old Comes Home by Karen Moriarty. Mrs. Moriarty was a volunteer therapist for Baby Richard’s family, when a court ordered that Richard had to be handed over to his biological father instead of the adoptive parents he had been living with. According to Mrs. Moriarty, Richard adjusted quickly and easily into his new home, despite all the experts elsewhere saying how horrible it would be for him and how he must be languishing.  As Veronica is right now at home with her father, I hope her situation can be similar, where she quickly adjusts and lives a happy life with him. I hope the experts who argue for her adoptive parents are wrong.

Next story… I read this story about a couple that were so scared of the “cascade of intervention” that they refused assistance during a birth-gone-wrong until the child’s health was seriously compromised. Was this a case of a child’s best interest colliding with what the mother thought was her own best interest (a natural childbirth)? Probably the mother didn’t believe that a natural childbirth did not at the same time equal the healthiest baby. She probably didn’t think of these two things as opposed at all.

The information the mother believed said natural birth equals healthiest. So how do we decide what we believe? It amazes me that so many people view their own assessments of situations as better than those with years more experience and information.
I think of hearing people say their worst fear is a cesarean. I’ve had three and they weren’t bad. For my second child I attempted a vbac and as we got to midnight of the second night of waiting the doctor finally told me if I didn’t consent to a cesarean I could go home because she wouldn’t let me continue to labor there at the hospital. Oh how I hated her at the time, but it was entirely the right thing to do and I am so blessed with children modern medicine has allowed me to bring into this world. A cesarean is not the end of the world.

How do we know what we think we know? This is a question I keep coming back to over and over. We all just make the best decisions we can. We all live with the decisions we make. We try to change what we can, fix what we can and accept what we must.

The idea of “rights” could be fit into both of these stories. The father has a right to his child. Veronica has a right to the parents she is accustom to. The mother has a right to refuse medical treatment. The baby has a right to be born safely. Sometimes I don’t know what the idea of “rights” are anymore. Sometimes I think that a thousand years into the future, the language of rights will sound as strange to people as the ancient ideas of Maat or ka or a parthenon of gods sounds to us now. People will look back and struggle over trying to understand exactly what we meant.

There is a blog post at Mother and Poet about Veronica’s situation. There the woman writes about her own attempt at adopting a baby and the heartbreak of losing “her” baby, and then appeals to people to support the Capobianco family. She says her baby, a baby she posessed for only eight days, was hers because she dreamed of the baby years before and because the mother told her the baby would be hers.  I can understand the sentiments to an extent. I remember knowing I was going to have the third child long before she was born. But the connection between the baby one dreams of and longs for and a particular physical baby (particularily one born of another’s body, still loved and wanted by the other one) seems forced. Wanting does not equal owning. Loving does not equal posession.

Biology doesn’t mean possession either. Biology, love, even legal rights… why should any of those be given highest ranking? One mother says a baby is hers even though the baby was biologically someone elses and is being raised by someone else. (In what way is it hers? What does posession mean then?) In the baby Jack case I linked to a baby is being physically raised by someone whom I would say does not have a moral right to. It is up to the courts still to decide if the people really have a legal right. So moral right and legal right are different things, different too from physical ability – there is a Guatemalan mother whose two year old was physically stolen from her, and the Guatamalan court has said the child must be returned by the American adoptive parents. In that case in Guatamala  the mother has the legal right to her child, but in America the adoptive parents have the legal right and they have the physical posession of the child. So I guess what I’m getting at here is that these things are all different – moral right, legal right, etc, etc – they exist in our minds, in the decisions of courts in particular countries but they don’t exist in real life. Physical posession is perhaps the only one that really exists and perhaps access to the means of coercison exists. So a legal right gives someone access to the means of coercison. The legal right is perhaps a bit like potential energy, it exists only in words. It isn’t really here and yet it is.

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