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Jewish World Review / Aug. 10, 1998 / 18 Menachem-Av, 5758

Mona Charen

Mona Charen

Switch illuminates biology's role

THE SPEED WITH WHICH the University of Virginia Medical Center announced that it would have been impossible for Rebecca Chittum and Callie Marie Johnson to have been accidentally switched at birth approached the speed of light. Robert W. Cantrell, vice president and provost of health sciences at U.-Va., announced as soon as news of the case broke that "We are 99.9 percent sure that it did not happen accidentally."

Paula Johnson is comforted by her attorney
at a press conference.
Cantrell was asked, "What would the possible motive be for such a crime?" No answer.

Hospital officials are blowing smoke for obvious reasons -- fear of liability. But the truth is that negligence on someone's part is the likeliest explanation for this error.

If anything strikes a new mother in a maternity ward, it is how much all newborns look alike. Some are bald, and some have hair. Some are swarthy, and some are fair. But otherwise, it is awfully easy to mistake one for another. It probably happens more often than we know.

The case of Kimberly Mays made headlines a decade ago when it came to light that she had been switched with another baby at a hospital in Florida. The switch was not discovered until Kimberly was 10 and after the other little girl, who had been born with a heart defect, had died. In that case, there was reason to suspect that the switch might have been intentional on someone's part. But no proof of wrongdoing ever emerged.

Kimberly, though, appears to have endured a far more tumultuous adolescence than she otherwise might have. Her birth family, the Twiggs, very much wanted her to rejoin her family of origin. But Kim was badly shaken by the idea of leaving the only father she had ever known. After four years of emotionally draining visits to the Twiggs, Kimberly sued for a "divorce," saying she wanted nothing more to do with them. A court granted her petition.

But over the next several years, Kimberly ran away from home several times. She fled to a shelter once, claiming that her father had sexually molested her from the age of 7 (a charge she later acknowledged she had invented), and later ran off to the Twiggs' home (from which she also fled several times).

Baby switching is as old as the Bible. Solomon's wisdom was proved by his ability to smoke out the true mother from two contending women, and Moses was floated down the Nile, plucked out by the Pharoah's daughter and raised at court. But baby switching, as terrible as it is, casts light on the whole question of biology's importance.

When Paula Johnson (alas, the only surviving mother of the two, Callie's birth parents having been killed in an accident last month) first saw a picture of her birth daughter, she was overcome by the physical resemblance. It seems to be part of our nature to be moved by such things. But while she may feel something like love for Rebecca, the 3-year-old who resembles her but is otherwise a stranger, it cannot compare with the bond she must feel with Callie Marie, the child she has raised from birth. (It is another emblem of our time that this switch was revealed for the most '90s of reasons, a suit for child support.)

The reason cases like this are so wrenching is exactly because human beings are not primarily biologically driven in their loves and attachments. It is the act of nurturing a child, day in and day out, that builds the monumental love of parents. If it were otherwise, this case would be simple: Just switch back the girls.

Usually biology and care go together. But humans are not orangutans. We can love a child that comes to us through adoption just as much as our "flesh and blood." Nor does biology ensure love. In Philadelphia, a 70-year-old woman was just charged with smothering eight of her own babies over a 19-year period. She had claimed it was crib death.

Some adoptees search for years attempting to find out "who they are." But if they suppose that knowing their biological roots will fully answer that question, they underestimate the human soul.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.