The Cautionary Tale of the Kehoe Twins: Is This About Surrogacy, or Whether or Not Disabled Women Can Parent?

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.

25 Comments

  1. I think one of the things that horrified me most in the articles I’ve read on it were that the “oh noz, she’s CRAZY!!1!” line simply went unquestioned as a reason to dispute Kehoe’s parenting ability. Perhaps it was sacrificed to the question of surrogacy’s legal status, but, as I am a woman with (unmedicated, therefore I suppose unacceptable, thank you drug-centric society) both bipolar and a child, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched in the gut with that aspect of the story, and that apparently it’s so acceptable as to remain unquestioned and unexplored in the mainstream media.

    I’m not sure I have any more coherent words on this topic. That my being is apparently not good enough to be allowed to parent my child in the eyes of my society (if I were to fall under question, as parents through adoption and surrogacy — or being “too young” or “too old” or the “wrong” color or sexuality or socioeconomic status — are) is absolutely terrifying.

  2. When I was a sole parent one of my greatest fears was that my son would be removed from my care because of my issues with depression and anxiety. Certain people involved in the situation threatened on many occasions to report me to Child Protective Services or to try to gain custody of my son based on my depression and anxiety. It was horrible.

    When I worked as a foster care placement and support case manager, we had several carers who had schizophrenia, as well as others with other disabilities. It was just a matter of matching the child to the carer in a way that worked for everyone involved. Just like we did with placements that involved carers without disabilities…

  3. The drug-centricness concerns me as well. Maybe in this case drugs were necessary for her to parent effectively, maybe they were helpful – I don’t know. But it worries me when supposedly supportive people/organisations make their support conditional on being medicated, as if it’s the only responsible thing to do. I believe I could parent in my current unmedicated state (it would take more soul searching than I’m going to do given that I don’t want to), I can certainly take care of children. Every medication I’ve tried, even that which got my vague approval and quelled my obvious symptoms, would have made parenting risky to both myself and the child (though, for the record, not a threat to them in a violent way).

    More generally, I don’t know what I think about surrogacy, and the rights of the surrogate parent, but really this is just the recycling of attitudes we see come up again and again and again.

  4. Everything I’ve read about this situation horrifies me. As far as I can tell, the Intended Parents planned very carefully how and when to have their child (unlike how many children get made). Then someone else decides she is “unfit” because of something that “might” happen in the future? It’s a slippery slope to deciding who is an unfit parent because of mental or physical issues. I think the situation is tragic for the Intended Parents, who worked so hard to have children.

  5. “I couldn’t see living the rest of my life worrying and wondering what had happened, or what if she hadn’t taken her medicine, or what if she relapsed,” because there’s nothing scarier than a crazy lady off her meds, or, God forbid, showing symptoms! I read the NYT article on this the other day and was angered (though not surprised, sadly) that Ms. Baker’s actions are never clearly described as discriminatory. Just goes to show that ableism is quite acceptable, nor is it always recognized. Not even my spellcheck recognizes it as a real word.

  6. This should not be about non-disabled people insisting that disabled people take particular drugs in order to prove themselves a fit parent. Do they have any idea how painful some of the side effects for psych drugs can be? Or that the cumulative effects of long-term usage aren’t very well-researched at all for many of these drugs? But, of course, “crazy” people’s rights to self-determination aren’t seen as particularly important by those lucky enough to pass as “neurotypical” (whatever that is). We need to be medicated according to someone else’s standard to be acceptable.

    This case is horrifying and really brings up various issues for me. I’m not planning on having kids anytime soon, but I have fears about when I do because my long-term partner and I are both diagnosed autistics (with a variety of mental health-related stuff on the side, for both of us). PWD with typically-abled partners have enough problems being recognized as competent parents. I can only imagine that it’s that much worse for single parents, or couples where both partners have disabilities.

  7. Surrogacy is illegal in Germany, and I am not sure where I stand on that issue, but this really isn’t about surrogacy at all.

    I think the question of “who is a unfit parent” is incredibly complicated, and one of the most dangerous things is how many people seem to take singular experiences as exemplary for all.

    My mom had rather severe depression when I was in my early teens. And yes, sometimes this was painfull for me, as I often felt useless for not being able to make her feel better. And yes, things got a lot better for her and the rest of the family when she started taking medication.

    But I would not go around telling people that only those who take medication can be good parents. Just because it worked for my mom, doesn’t mean that it will for everybody else.

    There is a reason why I recently stopped taking mine, and I wouldn’t want anybody telling me that I had to go back on if I wanted to have children.

  8. I find this interesting, because both my parents have mental illnesses. My mother especially, there was a period from when I was 6 to 12 years old that my younger siblings and I had both Mom and a full time babysitter at home because my mother wasn’t able to work, or take care of three children plus herself on her own. Obviously my family was lucky to be able to afford such an arrangement, but even after those six years, and from what I can vaguely remember before, I don’t look back at any of it and think “wow, that was really a bad situation”. There were many challenging times for sure, but considering both my brother and I have mental illness too, at times it was a big help to have parents who were already familiar with how it works and were able to suggest things that worked for them. In fact, after four years of trying to find the right drugs for me, it turns out that I function best if I take the exact same meds as my brother 🙂

  9. I notice that a couple times in the case you refer to Laschell Baker as “Laschell.” Is this because it’s an unusual name and it didn’t strike you on a quick read-through as a first name (I had to double check)? Because otherwise I think she’s probably better referred to by her last name, like the Kehoe’s.

    I think Baker did a very nasty thing in making the case about Amy Kehoe’s fitness to parent and the media take on the case is also dead wrong.

    But I don’t actually think the court decided wrong. Being a surrogate isn’t like waitressing, or manufacturing a car, a or baby-sitting, and unless we’re willing to say that yes, we think poor women should be treated as incubators for rich people who can pay, then I think it’s appropriate that the state tend to be on their side. For once it’s the law siding with the less privileged person in an economic exchange.

  10. I actually tried to balance “Amy”/”Laschelle” “Amy Kehoe”/”Laschelle Baker” “Kehoe”/”Baker” precisely because I wanted to avoid dehumanizing either woman involved in this case (the AP style guide might not agree with me, but I don’t feel comfortable referring to people repeatedly by their last names, or by firstname lastname, throughout a piece). I have decent reading comprehension skills and I am fully aware that Laschelle is Mrs. Baker’s first name.

  11. I have decent reading comprehension skills and I am fully aware that Laschelle is Mrs. Baker’s first name.

    My bad, I didn’t mean to imply you didn’t, especially since it’s apparent that *I* am the one lacking the reading skills, since I only noticed the “Laschell” and not the “Amy and Scott later.”

    Didn’t mean to be a jackass.

  12. Thanks. It’s a bit of a pet peeve with me, the dehumanization through the manipulating of names, which is why I tend to be extremely snarky about it.

    This case brings up some really important class issues, which you brought up as well in your previous comment. The class divide between surrogates and “contractors,” for lack of a better word, is something which really troubles me. (As is the fact that egg donors tend to be young women in need of financial assistance.) But I want to avoid privileging one woman over the other. In this case, we actually don’t know anything about the socioeconomic status of either the Bakers or the Kehoes, and I don’t really want to speculate. The only thing we know is that a mentally ill woman was put on trial to decide whether or not she should be a parent. For all we know, both parties could be of equal class status.

    Checking in on comments above, I wanted to note that I am also troubled by the theme of medicating and that “good” mentally ill parents should take their medications. Should, perhaps, even be compelled to do so. I think the qualifications child services adds, such as that mental illness must be “well controlled” are something which bears further exploration.

  13. This is a difficult subject for me to think about. I can’t conceive of a world without medication for my mental illness (anxiety & depression) but I also recognize that my view is probably especially skewed not only by the media but also by my own parents, who have been medicated for their own mental illnesses for as long as I can remember. I also made the decision a long time ago that I would never have a child, because if zie experienced the same pain at the hands of mental illness that I have, I could never, ever forgive myself, and because I am convinced that zie would, because I don’t have the emotional resources to take care of myself and nurture another human being, and I doubt I ever will.

    But I also recognize that neither of those worldviews can be generalized to all people with mental illnesses everywhere.

    I think one of the misconceptions about people with mental illnesses is that we’re all non-compliant and going to go off all of our meds as soon as possible regardless of what said med are doing for us. I wouldn’t dream of ever going off my meds, because I’ve been lucky enough that for the most part, I get very few side effects, and I am pretty desperate to get the hell out of depressionland and stay away. So I think if someone does decide to go off hir meds, zie probably has a pretty good reason–and that it’s important for non-mentally-ill people to make an effort to understand what those reasons might be.

  14. I think one of the misconceptions about people with mental illnesses is that we’re all non-compliant and going to go off all of our meds as soon as possible regardless of what said med are doing for us. I wouldn’t dream of ever going off my meds, because I’ve been lucky enough that for the most part, I get very few side effects, and I am pretty desperate to get the hell out of depressionland and stay away.

    I really identify with your comment here, though I’m not as lucky as you. I’m on two anti-D’s right now. Before I went on the first one I was convinced that I would take them and then get off them as soon as possible, while my doctor explained that some people take them all their lives and it’s really ok, wouldn’t fundamentally change my personality/destroy my essentially nihilist outlook (to which, for whatever reason, I am extraordinarily attached).

    But after getting better for a long time I got much worse thanks to some shitty life events and prescribed something else, which pretty much immediately fixed my life in all ways, big and small. Unfortunately, I get ever side effect from it, including a lot of the rare and really crappy ones. Now my doctor thinks I should be looking for something but I am terrified to change anything about my medical routine because I really don’t want to go back to the place I was in last year ever ever again even if it means I turn into a narcoleptic, vertigo having, chemically neutered violet beauregarde who can’t eat cheese without tasting bitter metal.

  15. I really identify with your comment here, though I’m not as lucky as you. I’m on two anti-D’s right now. Before I went on the first one I was convinced that I would take them and then get off them as soon as possible, while my doctor explained that some people take them all their lives and it’s really ok, wouldn’t fundamentally change my personality/destroy my essentially nihilist outlook (to which, for whatever reason, I am extraordinarily attached).

    I was actually pretty careful with my wording because while I haven’t had a lot of side effects, I haven’t been having extraordinary success either. I was really lucky with the first one I was put on– I became depressed for the first time at 13, was put on Zoloft, responded extraordinarily well, and it was basically accepted that I would be on it for the rest of my life, because my mom was, and I got depressed so early, and I really didn’t have a lot of say in it.

    And then I experienced some pretty serious SSRI poop-out last fall and I’ve tried a second, now I’m trying a third, augmenting with an atypical anxiolytic as well as a very small dosage of benzo, and they’re not doing much. I’m thinking the atypical anxiolytic is responsible for some of the dizziness I’ve been having lately but it’s not bad compared to the actual symptomatic stuff, which I’m terrified of aggravating by going off it. But if I were experiencing any side effects from the SSRIs, or if I hadn’t responded so well to the first one I was on (and therefore have that evidence that these can work for me), I would probably have discontinued by now.

  16. Yeah, the one that gives me the side effects is actually an SNRI: Remeron (mirtazapine). I don’t know enough about brain chemistry to really know what that mean means though.

  17. I for one choose not to have children, and my mental disability is a factor (not the only factor or the biggest factor, even) in that decision. However, I do not believe that there is any reason to question a person’s parenting skills simply on the basis of a disability. Further, if the state the intended parents live in, does not discriminate on the basis of disability in regular adoption cases (which my country, the Netherlands, does, despite its so-called “liberal” adoption policy because gay parents can adopt), there is no reason disabled prospective parents should be discriminated against in surrogacy cases. If the state does discriminate the disabled in adoption cases, it should obviously change its laws, but I get from the post that Michigan isn’t at least that ableist.

    But of course there is also the possibility that Ms. Baker was trying to keep the child (and as the post also says, MI tends to side usually with the surrogate), and she decided to use a sensationalist reasoning to presumably give her more sympathy. As it turns out, she succeeded, and that is a very bad thing on the part of the media. Assume that she’d refused to give up the twins because Ms. Tehoe belonged to a racial minority. I bet the media would’ve portrayed a totally different picture of her then. But for some strange reason, disability is different.

  18. But of course there is also the possibility that Ms. Baker was trying to keep the child (and as the post also says, MI tends to side usually with the surrogate), and she decided to use a sensationalist reasoning to presumably give her more sympathy.

    This. I brought this up briefly in the essay; it’s not clear if the roots behind the suit for custody had to do with ableism, or a desire to keep the babies and a calculated decision to use Kehoe’s mental illness as an excuse. I didn’t have the time to do the legwork and find documentation when I wrote this up, but I know that there have been a number of cases in which surrogates have been unable to surrender babies and those cases have not always been ruled in the surrogate’s favour as a result of the attitude that the contracting parents are entitled to the baby. It may be that this was seen as an easy win with mental illness in the mix. Which is very disturbing.

  19. If I were to have children, I’d need a lot of assistance at least for a time and possibly always. Currently I do not want children (while I -want- children, or a child anyway, like physically, feelings/hormones/chemicals and all that stuff, I do not want children for many other reasons which weigh much heavier and which by the way do not include autism or anxiety disorders or backpain or anything like that), nor does my partner, but if that changes, we’d probably have a problem. I currently do not receive any of the services I need even without children, so I am less than optimistic about how well any help that I would need to take care of a child would be handled. I wonder if people would try to talk me out of having children or even try to force me somehow not to have them, if I even asked about extra assistance becuse of having children. If I cannot have children by having one or more grow in my womb, I will probably never have them because I doubt I’d be able to adopt.

    People deciding that someone would be an unfit parent based on a diagnosis, enrage me. And all the stuff surrounding that too, that has already been mentioned in the comments.

    I think my mother was better able to parent us because she is also autistic, and so are we. I truly believe that no one not autistic would have been able to ‘get it’ so deeply as she did, recognise our issues right away because she simply lived through them. Even though we are all different, we seem to be autistic in the same ways, the way that you sometimes meet people who are very little like you with the same diagnosis, but sometimes you meet people with your diagnosis and you have SO MUCH in common in that area. I’ve met with a lot of resistance, even anger, when stating that. A lot of parents who insist that no one could have done a better job than them even if they are NT, that they really listen to their children well, they would do anything fortheir children etc. Even though I never said anything about any other parents or anything outside my own situation. They seemed to feel personally attacked, like I was saying someone else would have done a better job raising their children or that they don’t love them as much, even the ‘neurodiverse’ parents.
    .-= Norah´s last blog ..Identification =-.

  20. Thank you for addressing this angle of this case!

    I am actually a friend helping Amy and Scott through this situation and I would like to request that you please correct her diagnosis. She does not actually have schizophrenia, though I realize the NYT worded it cleverly to appear like she did. Her husband misspoke in his nervousness when he said that. In fact, Amy was diagnosed with 298.9 – Psychotic Disorder NOS. I realize it does not change the nature of your article, but for accuracy, she would appreciate if you change it.

    Again, thank you for seeing the injustice in Laschell’s act. Besides being a friend to Amy, I am also a surrogate and an IVF nurse. Perhaps that makes it easier for me to see how wrong it is for Laschell to discriminate against Amy for an 8-year, well-controlled mental illness, but to me it seems so obvious. I’m happy to see others recognizing it.

  21. Jmommybear, thank you for the correction! Amy has also been in touch with us and the post has been edited to reflect the correct information about her diagnosis.

  22. I don’t think I’ve seen it mentioned in comments here, but the articles linked to (did not read them, because my blood pressure needs to stay low) do they in anyway bring up that this was a couple adopting a child?

    I ask because there seems to be, this heavy handed ‘But what if she went off her meds/ I couldn’t think of what would happen’ on the part of the surrogate, but there’s no mention of the twins’ would be father.

    Is it that mothers have to be beyond any sort of societal reproach?

    Even if Ms Kohoe’s mental illness had any number of fluctuations in care and management; she had a partner to help with parenting, nurturing and care.

    What, her husband, the man who wanted to be the twins father, would supposedly just sit there and not help with anything should his wife feel overwhelmed?

    Was Baker also getting the twins as a single parent or did she too have a partner?

    If not there’s a subtext that should be as brought to light as the disability angle as it is directly related.

  23. Avalon’s Willow, Mrs. Baker does in fact have a partner, but it is interesting that the coverage of the case has focused primarily on Amy and Laschelle, not on the roles that their husbands would/will be playing in child rearing.

    Is it that mothers have to be beyond any sort of societal reproach?

    Yup, this.

  24. very interesting post.

  25. I think that for too long people with disabilities had been told that having families of our own was not an option. The truth is, though, that we have always been parents, and as our society evolves, more and more of us will have access to that opportunity. Parenting with a disability is and always has been a legal right as much as it is for any other person.