Note: This post has been edited to include Amy Kehoe’s correct diagnosis, which was erroneously stated as schizophrenia in an earlier version. I apologize for the error and for not fact checking more thoroughly before publishing. -meloukhia
A story is brewing in Michigan.
Amy and Scott Kehoe wanted babies, but couldn’t have them on their own. So they selected egg and sperm from donors and made arrangements for a surrogate. In Michigan, paid surrogacy is not legal, and the law on surrogacy contracts is slippery, with details primarily being handled by doctors. However, the Kehoes and their surrogate, Laschell Baker, worked out an agreeable arrangement within the framework of existing law.
All went well until Laschell was supposed to surrender the resulting twins to the Kehoes.
Amy Kehoe has a psychotic disorder not otherwise specified (NOS).
Laschell Baker has a problem with that. Or, she decided that she wanted to keep the children, and felt that using mental illness as the fulcrum for the case would be the best way to win, which brings up an entirely new set of issues about surrogacy and the public perception of mental illness.
Because Michigan tends to support surrogates rather than the people who contract with them in custody disputes, Laschell Baker won custody of the twins. The Kehoes decided not to fight it, giving up the opportunity to raise the children they thought they would be adopting and had prepared for because they felt that they could not win the case.
Surrogacy itself is a very complicated issue with a lot of feminist implications; I’m not discussing it here because I don’t want this post to balloon into an epic pile of words, not because I don’t think it’s important. There are a lot of things going on with this case, many of which merit discussion in a feminist environment, I’m just focusing on one particular angle today, which is one disability issue: Whether or not women with disabilities are competent parents, according to society. There’s also another disability issue here, of course, embedded in the use of donor eggs and sperm selected for “intelligence.”
In this case, when mental illness was brought up, Kehoe’s doctor wrote a letter in her support, arguing that she would be an excellent parent. Social services freely said that mental illness is not a barrier to adoption when it’s clear that a parent is making regular doctor’s appointments, taking medication, and demonstrating that the mental illness is clearly being managed. As far as child services is concerned, Amy and Scott would make great parents. They would be allowed, for example, to adopt or foster.
Yet, custody still went to Laschell Baker.
This case is being framed in the media as an example of the complicated issues surrounding surrogacy and the fact that it is largely unregulated. “Painful implications if surrogacy goes awry,” says the Seattle Times. “Surrogacy: Testing the Boundaries of Third-Party Reproduction,” reads the title of a slide show in the New York Times featuring the Kehoe case (related story, for those interested in reading it, is “Building a Baby, With Few Ground Rules“). These are definitely issues which need to be discussed.
But what also needs to be discussed is the inherent ableism in this case. In this instance, Laschell appears to have decided that mental illness made Amy Kehoe unable to parent, if we are to believe the media reports. And talked in quite graphic terms about being worried about “what might happen” if Amy didn’t take her medication. This was clearly a wedge which helped to cinch the case.
In the media reporting, the reporters mention the fact that mental illness is not a barrier to adoption, but seem almost suspicious of this, and don’t discuss the obvious implications of this situation, in which the spectre of mental illness was used to argue that Amy Kehoe should not be allowed to parent.
There’s a widespread belief that people with disabilities cannot be parents. This is especially true in the case of mental illness, which is viewed as a barrier to parenting by many able people (and, often, by the government, which throws up plenty of barriers to parenting while disabled). Many of the articles I found seemed almost sympathetic to Baker, making sure to emphasize that she was “tricked” when Kehoe didn’t undergo psychological screening or disclose her mental illness. Kehoe, the implication goes, was under an obligation to prove her psychological fitness to be a parent, because she is disabled and therefore suspect when it comes to parenting skills. Presumably Baker did not undergo similar screening.
Is this case really about the murky waters of surrogacy law? Sure it is, in part. It highlights a lot of serious problems with a process which is not tightly regulated, or which is regulated with a very coarse framework which disserves more than it serves. And it brings up a whole host of ethical issues related to surrogacy, egg and sperm donation, and assisted reproductive technology.
But to my eye, the social implication of this case are about whether or not disabled parents should (continue to) be put on trial to prove that they can be parents. Whether or not disability should be evoked as a barrier to being a good parent. Whether disabled women, in particular, should be barred from parenthood. This case evokes forced sterilization and a host of other unpleasantries which have been perpetrated on disabled women to prevent them from having a chance to parent.
And that’s what troubles me about the case of these twins, who have been treated like pawns and objects in a very large and dangerous game.