Gone Baby, Gone

Perhaps you’re familiar about the recent New Jersey decision to terminate the rights of a mother and father to their child and award custody to the foster parents.

If you’re so inclined to dig deeper, you can read the full court brief here.

The basics of the story are this.  A mother in labor became agitated and uncooperative with her physicians.  At one point they asked her to sign a consent for for a C-section, should they deem it necessary.  She refused to sign – which is her right.  She went on to deliver a healthy baby without the need for a C-section.

Somehow, her behavior in the delivery room caught the attention of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS), essentially a Child Protective Services department.  Based on her behavior in the delivery room, she was ruled to have endangered the life of her child by refusing to sign the consent form for the C-section.  They subsequently sent the healthy baby home to foster parents and not to the birth parents.   The birth parents appealed this decision. 

In the course of the court arguments on the issue, it became apparent that the mother’s refusal to consent to a C-section did not in and of itself legally or ethically or medically constitute anywhere near a case of “neglect”.  At which point, DYFS basically said, let’s not talk about the birth then.  Let’s talk about the mother’s psychiatric care in the past. 

It then comes to light that the patient had received psychiatric care in the past, and this evidence was now being used to rule her (and the husband) as unfit parents.  Never mind that they had been married since 1995.  Never mind that they had no criminal record or any other history of problems other than that the mother had received psychiatric care in the past.  Never mind that the foster parents of the child reported that in the nine months of court-allowed visitations that the birth parents made to their child, they never demonstrated any sort of erratic or dangerous behavior, and all-in-all appeared to be model parents who ought to be given back their baby.

This baby is being removed from the parent’s custody – and their parental rights terminated.  Not because of any crime.  Not because of any violation of the law.  But simply because the parents have received psychiatric care in the past, and therefore *could* constitute a danger to the baby.

Several issues here.

First off, it’s perfectly allowable for a woman to refuse to consent to an invasive surgery technique for delivering a baby – or for any other situation.  Secondly, the hospital demanded her consent to a C-section in case the baby became distressed during delivery, but at no point is there documentation indicating how they determined that  the baby *might* become stressed.  To me, it sounds like simply getting permission to go ahead with a delivery method that is preferable (from a hospital standpoint) to traditional delivery because it is quicker.  An old but interesting nonetheless summary of information on Cesareans is here

I find it abhorrent that the presenting problem of the delivery room behavior (because, of course, women are traditionally known to be in the best frame of mind during the delivery of a baby) eventually becomes disregarded as the cause to pursue termination of parental rights.  Basically, it provides the pretext for a fishing expedition to see if there’s anything in this couple’s past that could disqualify them from being parents, thus upholding the State’s initial decision and avoiding the embarrassing (and potentially costly) necessity of apologizing and reversing the decision.

Thirdly, I’m not aware of any legislation indicating that someone with a history of psychiatric treatment is disqualified from becoming pregnant and raising a child.  This couple appears to have functioned quite well for 13 years before their hospital delivery experience.  They have nothing concrete in their record to indicate that they would be a threat to their child, and have since demonstrated consistent, appropriate parental behavior.  Why are they being denied the right to raise their child?  Seems like this ought to be a dream case for a civil rights lawyer, and I have no doubt that it will soon be taken up as such.

Finally, there are some who are outraged at this turn of events, but see the issue exclusively as one of a woman’s self-determination.  They disagree that the mother was delivering a baby – insisting that since the baby had yet to actually be born, it should be termed a fetus.  They see the issue here as an attempt to force a woman into doing something she doesn’t want to do – and that’s true at one level.  But they extrapolate from there to argue in defense of abortion rights and other self-determinative concepts that women ought to have available at all times.  I disagree with this application of this case.

We need to be very aware of precedents set in terms of what we can or cannot be required to do in terms of health care and medical care.  It has cost this couple the first year of their baby’s life, and threatens to cost them the rest of the child’s life.  I find this abominable, and deeply frightening and troubling.  I pray that wiser judicial heads will agree.

2 Responses to “Gone Baby, Gone”

  1. Aimee Says:

    As a soon to be second time mom and supporter of natural childbirth, this is shocking and frightening! This is almost on par with Vietnam, where we live, where accusations have been made of babies being taken from their mothers and put up for adoption because the parents couldn’t pay their hospital bill. After living abroad for 2 years and hearing things like this, I realize more and more that people are not as free as they think they are in the US!

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Welcome Aimee!  I pray that your delivery comes on time and smoothly.  I trust you guys have enjoyed your sabbatical?As we move towards some sort of state-sponsored healthcare, I expect there to be more and more discussions about who is going to be eligible for what sorts of services.  Essentially, this will boil down to what lives are worth investing money in, and how much money are we willing to invest?   Already discussions are coming out about how much care the elderly can – or cannot – expect to receive under such a program.  I can only imagine that there will be some serious discussion about how much care – and what types of care – is reasonable for people who are deemed to have develomental challenges of one sort or another.  And if that’s the case, I wouldn’t be surprised – somewhere down the line – to see incentives offered to couples who abort babies suspected of developmental challenges, and other incentives for parents who sterilize or consent to other sorts of “treatments” for such babies.  It all sounds very shocking, until you start attaching dollars and cents to things.  I think it will be disheartening to see how quickly people are willing to begin nickeling and diming human life in order to preserve their standard of living or taxation rate.

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