Race as disability: an update on fertility clinic mixup case

by guest contributor Kay Olson, originally published at The Gimp Parade

Back in March the story of the Andrews family of Long Island came to public attention. The NY Daily News announced “What a mess, baby: Parents say fertility clinic botched in-vitro & girl’s got the wrong dad“.

[Note from Carmen: Racialicious covered it too.]

The story came to public notice in March because a judge ruled the couple can precede with their medical malpractice lawsuit but disallowed the claims of mental suffering — the parents’ suffering and baby Jessica’s suffering for being a different race than her parents. There’s a lot to unpack here and The Nation‘s Patricia Williams took a stab at it:

What’s distinctive about the Andrews case is that the parents… tried to cite… Jessica’s pain and suffering for having to endure life as a black person. The Andrewses expressed concern that Jessica “may be subjected to physical and emotional illness as a result of not being the same race as her parents and siblings.” They are “distressed” that she is “not even the same race, nationality, color…as they are.” They describe Jessica’s conception as a “mishap” so “unimaginable” that they have not told many of their relatives. (Telling the tabloids all about it must have come easier.) “We fear that our daughter will be the object of scorn and ridicule by other children,” the couple said, because Jessica has “characteristics more typical of African or African-American descent.” So “while we love Baby Jessica as our own, we are reminded of this terrible mistake each and every time we look at her…each and every time we appear in public.”

Since the claim of mental distress of their child hinges on appearance and public perceptions of skin color, Williams comments on the family’s photo:

The picture underscores the embedded cultural oddities of this case, the invisibly shifting boundaries of how we see race, extend intimacy, name “difference.” According to the Post, Mrs. Andrews is “Hispanic” and apparently, by the paper’s calculations, one Hispanic woman plus one white man equals “a white pair.” The mother is “a light-skinned native of the Dominican Republic,” seeming to indicate that while she may not be “white,” she’s also not “black.” Each narrative implies that if the correct sperm had been used, the Andrewses would have been guaranteed a lighter-skinned child. But as most Dominicans trace their heritage to some mixture of African slaves, indigenous islanders and European settlers, and as dark skin color is a dominant trait, it could be that the true sperm donor is as “white” as Mr. Andrews. But that possibility is exiled from the word boxes that contain this child. Not only is Jessica viewed as being of a race apart from either of her parents; she is even designated a different nationality–this latter most startling for its blood-line configuration of citizenship itself.

Paul Butler at BlackProf discusses the race issue as well.

If I understand the legal situation correctly, the parents’ claim of mental suffering is essentially a “wrongful conception” or “wrongful birth” claim and their suit on behalf of Baby Jessica’s mental suffering is a “wrongful life” claim. New York state, where the case resides, has precedence in these situations, which Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam cited in her ruling. Regarding the “wrongful birth” claim:

By logical extension of the principles enunciated by the courts in New York that the birth of an unwanted but otherwise healthy and normal child does not constitute an injury to the child’s parents, and that even parents of a child with a serious disease cannot recover for emotional injury for the birth of that child, plaintiffs in this case cannot recover for mental distress arising from having a child who is not Mr. Andrews’ biological offspring…. Plaintiffs cannot recover damages based upon their claim that they were deprived of the opportunity to have a child of their own genetic makeup. The Court of Appeals has rejected as too speculative a claim that is ” . . . based essentially on “wrongful nonbirth”, the deprivation of an opportunity by a woman to have a child by her husband.

While these types of lawsuits were originally an additional claim for malpractice issues like failed vasectomies or lack of medical information provided by doctors, much of the case law centers around the distinction of whether or not a child with disabilities is involved. And, of course, that determination hinges on the ability to diagnose that there’s “something wrong” with a child at the time a suit is filed. In the Andrewses case, if Jessica had not been perceived as looking physically different from her parents, her genetic differences (in this case, the fact that her father was not a biological parent) may have gone forever unnoticed.

And because the wrongful life suit (rejected by the judge) on Jessica’s behalf claims she will suffer physical and emotional stress from having darker skin than her family, race is made here to be a kind of disability. Disability, after all, is not only about actual impairments, but also perceived impairments — the ADA recognizes this fact of the social stigma of disability.

While the specific circumstances (of botched reproductive technology leading to wrongful birth and life claims due to skin color) may be new, positing race or gender or ethnicity as a disability is not historically new. Disability is and has frequently been used as a method of demonizing or oppressing other minority populations. That goes back at least as far as Aristotle claiming that women are mutilated (read impaired) males. The medical definition of “hysteria” linked femaleness with mental instability. Irrespective of diagnosed intellectual impairments, black male schoolchildren in U.S. public schools are much more likely than other kids to be placed in special ed classes or considered behavioral problems. There are innumerable examples of oppressed minority identities having their identifying biological difference labelled as a disabling condition.

But culturally, we find it challenging to look at the dynamic from the other direction. Sandel’s book (discussed briefly in an earlier, May 26, 2007, post) on the ethics of striving for genetic perfection asks:

Is it wrong to make a child deaf by design? If so, what makes it wrong — the deafness or the design? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that deafness is not a disability but a distinctive identity. Is there still something wrong with the idea of parents picking and choosing the kind of child they will have? Or do parents do that all the time, in their choice of mate and, these days, in their use of new reproductive technologies?

What if, with an understanding of how elusive and intersecting categories of ability and identity are, that paragraph were rewritten to more closely discuss the Andrewses court case?

Is it wrong to make a child dark-skinned by design? If so, what makes it wrong — the dark skin or the design? Suppose, for the sake of argument, that dark skin is not a disability but a distinctive identity. Is there still something wrong with the idea of parents picking and choosing the kind of child they will have? Or do parents do that all the time, in their choice of mate and, these days, in their use of new reproductive technologies?

Intersections between identities are never perfect, and matching women’s oppression to racial oppression to disability oppression is never a perfect fit of history and experience, but the Andrewses case does beg the above questions about race. The references to “dark skin” could easily be changed to “light skin” to reflect the family’s presumption of genetic whiteness, but the “problem” of skin color difference remains.

I confess that I don’t know exactly how this court case illuminates the debates over prenatal screening and genetic engineering to avoid children with disabilities. But they are fundamentally related.
Cross-posted at Echidne of the Snakes