Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Makes a Mother?

This is such a sad story. A woman, due to medical malpractice and complications during the birth of her triplets, is paralyzed. Abbie Dorn "was left unable to move, talk, eat or drink, and now lives with her parents, Susan and Paul Cohen, in Myrtle Beach, S.C."

Her parents contend that she can communicate through facial expression like blinking and smiling, and because of this subtle communication, they are sure that she is able to comprehend things going on around her.

Her ex-husband has custody of the triplets, now four years old, and maintains that she "is in a vegetative state and is incompetent to have visitation rights." He cites concerns over the effect seeing their mother will have on the children, saying that they might feel guilty for causing her condition.

According to this article on Time, a judge made a temporary order (pending a full trial on visitation rights) that Dorn is entitled to five consecutive days of visitation with her children per year:
"The court finds that even though [Dorn] cannot interact with the children, the children can interact with [Dorn] — and that the interaction is beneficial for the children," wrote Judge Frederick Shaller. "They can touch her, see her, bond with her, and can carry those memories with them."
This judge recognizes that the presence of their mother is important for the children's development:
Failure to cultivate a relationship for the children with their mother, wrote Shaller, is likely to cause them “psychological harm that will negatively affect their development and their relationship with their father."
On the edges of this discussion is a broader look at what makes someone a mother. Is it simply biology? [EDIT: And of course, not all mothers are biologically connected to their children, either. The relationships of adoptive mothers and their children also factor into this larger understanding of motherhood.] Biologically, this woman has certainly earned her rights, so much so that the biological process of birthing the children has left her permanently paralyzed. But I think many of us can agree that there are situations where a biological mother might rightfully be denied access to her children. These, however, are cases of abuse or severe neglect. Does mothering require the ability to interact with the children? If so, who determines what level of ability constitutes interaction? Is interaction determined on a case-by-case basis?

Attempts to deny Ms. Dorn rights to see her children seems like a slippery slope. Can we say that a deaf/mute mother cannot appropriately interact with her children? Can we say that a wheelchair-bound woman does not have the mobility to mother? What about someone with limited IQ?

Dorn's parents said that she responded to the judge's orders with a long blink and a smile, so who's to say that she does not benefit from the opportunity to see her children, the children whose very birth caused her to sacrafice her mobility, her communication, her marriage, and her ability to interact in the ways we most readily recognize.

For the moment, the courts seem to be allowing her a chance to interact in the only ways she can. For now, they are allowing her the chance to mother her children.

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