There’s a story out there in the ether today (you can find it here) that returns me to the consideration of the “switched at birth” problem.

In 1953 two baby girls born at the same hospital in Eastern Oregon were switched.   One grew up to be Kay Rene Qualls, the other Dee Ann Angell Shafer.   The thing is, the woman who became Kay Rene Qualls’ mother had actually given birth to DeeAnn  and the woman who became DeeAnn Shafer’s mother had actually given birth to Kay Rene.   Shortly after birth, the babies were handed off to (and then went home with) the wrong families.

Though apparently there were some early suspicions, this switch came to light and was confirmed by DNA testing in the last year.   The women involved are now 56.

What’s interesting in these stories, and similar sorts of stories do crop up from time to time, is how the people involved react.   The DNA tests reveal some historical facts, but what meaning is given those facts in the present? 

So in this instance the testing reveals who gave birth to which child.  It confirms that somehow, the “wrong” child was sent home with each family involved.   It identifies a whole set of people that each of these women has reasons to be interested in meeting and perhaps getting to know.   (And indeed, it gives the women reason to be interested in each other.  That’s where “swister” comes in.  It’s the word they’ve coined for their relationship.)

That’s all well and good, but in my view what the test results should not do (and there’s no sign that it has done so here) is unwrite the family lives that were lived.  Thus, whatever the genetic relationship, the parents of each child became the family she went home with and lived her whole childhood with. This was her functional family.

I wonder about how the law would untangle this situation were the law required to do so.  Suppose the question was whether one woman could inherit as a child of the mother who had raised her but who had not given birth to her and was not genetically related to her?   To the extent the law relies on genetics as the defining characteristic of parenthood, we’d say that the woman who raised her is not her mother, and hence the child cannot inherit as daughter.    I don’t think that’s the result many people would actually want to reach.

If you want to say that the child is the daughter of the woman who raised her, genetic link notwithstanding, how do you get there?  There’s clearly no adoption.   This is where you need to recognize functional or de facto parents for who they are.  The law needs to confirm reality.

The other thing highlighted in this case is the importance of the passage of time in family law.   If you discover the babies are switched within hours of the event, then surely you switch them back.   If it’s days or even months you probably do to.   When does the reality created by the switch become more important than the genetic link?   In this case you’ve got 56 years of reality, and it seems pretty clear to me that this is on the far side of the line.   But where is that line?   Functional families come into being only over time.   How long does it take?


One response to “Swisters

  1. It is an interesting question, that you ask, but I don’t think there is an answer.

    The biological and the functional are not divided into watertight compartments in the human mind.

    What is a mother? Bonding is a complex proces that involves both social inputs and ideas about biological relatedness. It can in modified form take place decades after the relevant events.

    The question ‘what is reality?’ probably has the answer, that there are many realities hopelessly mixed up with each other.

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