Wednesday, August 11, 1993

On Jessica De Boer: The Media Just Didn't Get It

    The case of Jessica DeBoer was played in the media as an adoptive parents' nightmare, a melodrama to rend the heartstrings of anyone who has ever considered adopting a child: a 2 1/2-year-old taken away from the Only Home She Has Ever Known, an adoption come undone because of an unmarried birth mother who lied and a father who suddenly showed up.
    As a clincher, we had those AP photos and film footage of the
sobbing child as she was whisked away. (Never mind the possibility that her distress may have been caused by Robeta DeBoer, who, it was reported only at the end of the accounts, lunged for Jessica as she was
being taken away, in a last-ditch effort to hold on to her.)
Personally, I hate being manipulated.

    Whatever happened to giving the other side, one of the principles of fair and balanced journalism? And by this, I don't mean burying it somewhere at the bottom of the inverted news pyramid.
When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, it should have effectively put an end to the media hype and public hysteria. The New York Times mentioned that refusal only in passing in a piece on the opinion of the two justices who dissented from the majority. (The majority opinion, evidently, would have been of no interest to readers.)

     Conducting a poll of my own, I found that everyone I asked knew Jessica as the toddler taken from the Only Home She Had Ever Known.   
     But few, if any, were aware of the facts of this case: of an infertile couple who clung at all costs to someone else's child despite 2 1/2 years of court orders. Could public opinion, I wonder, be a reflection of the media's penchant for the catch phrase, the dramatic footage, the sentimental photo?
      Beyond the sound bites and snapshots is a tragic human-interest story that has the potential for a happy ending: Wanting the best thing for her child, a single mother gives her up. Within days, her situation changes. Now there is a relationship, a father in the picture; he stands by her; they ask for the child back, informing the would-be adoptive couple within the month; they get married.
     A difficult situation, yes. Some unfortunate circumstances, yes. Do the media wish them well?
     No. Roberta DeBoer is praised as the ideal, selfless mother who quits her job to stay home with the child, only to have her taken away, while Cara Schmidt is blasted as the morally suspect unwed mother who had been willing to give up her baby.
     The birth mother took action to regain her child, implied an article in The New Yorker, because she had been brainwashed by an anti-adoption group. In a public castigation of Cara Schmidt, the "biological" mother, The Times' editorial page went so far as to invoke the Biblical story of Solomon's judgment - an interpretation that had the wise king himself, I am sure, turning in his grave. "Home is where the heart it, but in this case it's where the biological parents are," snidely intoned a CNN news commentator, juxtaposing images of love and warmth and home (the DeBoers) with those of cold science. I guess the media see the Schmidts' child as merely the incidental union of an ovum and a sperm.
    So what does the would-be adoptive couple do? What would you do?
    Judging from media support for the DeBoers, here is the right way
for adoptive couples to behave when a birth mother changes her mind: Try at all costs to hold the birth parents to the terms of the contract, determined to exact your pound of flesh. Arrogantly ignore court rulings and go before the cameras, never hesitating to teach someone else's child to call you Mommy and Daddy. The longer you keep her, the more wrenching the image of taking her away. And this self-serving campaign is promoted as children's "rights"?

     The result is a birth mother's nightmare. On the TV screen, alongside the poignant footage (which includes a sign with a bleeding heart rent in two, posted by the DeBoers for the benefit of us TV viewers), there is even a call-in number.
   It is hard for me to see what motivates this would-be adoptive couple. A belief that they are superior, above the law? A feeling of entitlement? A sense of being short-changed in an adoption contract no different from a bill of sale? A belief in their "better" qualifications- except for the mere matter of biology - to raise a child? But isn't this moral standard really an economic one? Are we readers and TV viewers really supposed to think their behavior is what Solomon had in mind when he defined the quality that characterizes parenthood? Who are these self-appointed shapers of public opinion?
    Obviously, the media didn't get it.
    Perhaps behind their arrogance is a need to see mothers who give up children as different from and less deserving than better-off individuals like themselves. Perhaps these media spokespersons, now well into their careers, relate more readily to trendy issues like infertility or the shortage of adoptable children or even unwed career women who decide to have a go at motherhood than they do to the painful dilemma of a poor parent who finds herself with a child she cannot raise. It boils down to this: They simply could not imagine themselves in Cara Schmidt's situation, but they could easily have been the DeBoers.
    It is perhaps because of this myopia that the press has been able to ignore the pain the Schmidts have suffered these 2 1/2 years. But certainly such self-absorption does not characterize all of us.
    Fortunately, the outcome of the case depended a lot more on the workings of blind justice than on so-called "even-handed" journalism.
    In the end, I, for one, unlike those smug masters of spin, wish the
reunited Schmidt family well.

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