Baby-Switching Ethics

The song from H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story amazingly well.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, a horrendous situation resembling the plot-resolving song from “H.M.S. Pinafore” may be reaching an unusual resolution for such cases—a sensible and ethical one. The families never suspected until one of the mothers underwent tests when her ex-husband refused to pay child support. One of the mothers wanted her biological child back, while the other wants to keep the child she had raised. A judge now has to decide.

The court asked the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Child Law to investigate and make a report n what would be in the children’s best interests. The experts’ answer: “The recommendation is that the children should stay with the parents who have raised them and should also be permitted to have contact with their biological parents.”

Exactly. Let’s hope that the court follows the recommendation, the only ethical one. Four years old is too old for this wrong to be set right without making it worse. What about three years old, though? Where do we draw that line? Furthermore, I am assuming that the two families are more or less equally fit, able and qualified to raise children. What if the investigation showed that one family was clearly more advantageous for a child: better educated parents with more resources and experience with children, living in a safer community? Then what would be the calculation of “the right thing”? The benefit of one child would be the detriment of the other, a zero sum game. In such a case, would fairness govern, rather than the best interests of the children? Why should one child be cheated out of the better life awaiting him, because of a nurse’s mistake? Fortunately, we don’t have those details, so we can make a confident abstract ethics judgement without confounding factors and issues.

Precedent is such that in the U.S., the children staying put would not be the result, in all likelihood, traumatizing both toddlers horribly in the specious pursuit of “blood relations,” but certainly setting them and the parents for some juicy book and movie rights. One part of the U.S. solution that should be followed in South Africa, however: both parents and both children should sue the hospital for a fortune. no matter what the court rules.

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Pointer: Fark

Facts: ABC

16 thoughts on “Baby-Switching Ethics

    • Perhaps it happens more than anyone might want to imagine. How much family resemblance in infants and toddlers is already just projection and wishful thinking? How often are differences in appearance passed off as resemblance to distant relatives? How many divorces might be blamed on infidelity as a result of babies who don’t look a thing like their father, even though there would be no relation to the mother, either? Up until the availability of modern genetic testing, how would anyone have proven one way or the other?

  1. How on earth could you raise a child for four years, see yourself every day at the center of the world in his eyes, and then suddenly be willing to trade him for a stranger? To tear one child away from the people he loves, while telling the one who loves you that you don’t want him anymore? I’m sorry, but I don’t see any way that one of those mothers isn’t a horrible, horrible, horrible person.

    • Yep. The developed relationship is what counts. On the flipside, if we acknowledge that materialism reigns supreme and that the kids (especially the one who got “shafted” into a less well-to-do family) can sue for “what might have been”…are we not quietly acknowledging that the “lesser” family shouldn’t be having kids simply because there are “better” arrangements available.

      This whole scenario stinks. The mistake was made. Loving bonds developed just fine after that. Mistake discovered…now we’re gonna bitch and moan…what’s important here people?

  2. Yeah, four years is way too long to try for a swap. I’d lean to months or less than a year for that line. And my outrage is for the kid whose parents wanted to give them up only a bit more than the other kid torn from a loving connection. Treating them like a really friendly adoption seems best, and they’d become a weird kind of twins. If done right, both families could benefit.

  3. And yes, the hospital should be sued…for all the traffic will bear and for a cut of future earnings. Without paying a price, and a meaningful one, they will not take any steps to insure it doesn’t happen again.

    • The hospital, and everything in it, should be auctioned off and the proceeds given to the families. The medical licenses of those responsible should be revoked.

      • I agree about the licenses being revoked, but leave the hospital in business. I know this is not legal, but the ideal solution…read DREAM solution, would be to confiscate the shares held by the investors and give them to the two mothers involved, to be held in trust for the children. Actually, now that I think about it, let ’em keep their licenses but tie them to the hospital for life, and make their salary dependent on the hospitals “profits”.

        • . I know this is not legal, but the ideal solution…read DREAM solution, would be to confiscate the shares held by the investors and give them to the two mothers involved, to be held in trust for the children.

          The investors are not liable merely because they were investors.

  4. Reality check for Null et al: The Newborn Switch is the one of the most overused plots in television soap opera, just trailing the equally-common-in-real-life Back From the Dead and Twins Separated at Birth themes). The original source of the fictions’ popularity was the Victorian Era.

    Not only is it rare today, for obvious technological reasons, but when instances of a child taken to the wrong mother occur (and they are recorded, by the way, as is everything that happens with infants), they are corrected swiftly and easily … in-hospital. The multiple safeguards — including an extreme which is available in some hospitals of having all three, newborn AND parents, married or not, ID-tagged at baby’s birth — were not put into place due to baby-switching fears but to protect against baby snatching, a very different and a very real problem.

    Point of interest: The most successful form of ID-proofing and protection against baby-switching does not involve DNA testing, foot-printing, wristbands, CCTV or any other intervention. It’s called bonding recognition and it has so far tested 100%. Mother-child chemical bonding, particularly odor/pheromones (as well as voice recognition, known earlier) is not a maternal “instinct;” it is a measurable biological force that works best earliest, when both remain in close physical contact during the first hours after birth. (An argument for home birthing, by the way.) Slowly (enhanced by promises of lower cost: the raison d’etre of managed care) hospital delivery rooms are including on-the-spot newborn physical exams which decrease separation time, and hours of increased body connection between mother and child. It also means that the bonding recognition will take place between those two — and not be mistaken for any other pairing.

    The ongoing studies have so far shown that after that time, mom will know her own and even be able to distinguish between identical twins — by sniff. And know who isn’t hers. One of the situations which cropped up in ‘the olden days’ was of moms who thought and said the baby wasn’t theirs from the get-go … but who weren’t believed or who were made unsure, especially if they had been under heavy anesthetic.

    The ethicalegal dilemma is, to my mind, completely case-dependent. In another South African baby-switch, the boys were 6 years old before the accidental swap was discovered in 1995. The families sued the provincial government and won medical and visitation expenses, until one of the boys as an adolescent decided to go live with the other family where they were thereafter raised as brothers.

    [Bonding recognition, unfortunately, does not ensure bonding attachment. Indifferent moms and autistic babes still abound. If they hugged, they could identify one another . . . .]

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