In a New York Times story posted November 23, author Erik Eckholm told the story of a mother denied her reproductive rights.
Within the last year, Sara McKenna, United States Marine, firefighter and ivy-league student was forced to surrender custody of her son after being reprimanded for “virtually absconding with her fetus.”
After exploring a short relationship with Olympic skier and Alpine racer Bode Miller, McKenna became pregnant. The two ended their relationship, but kept in touch.
After seven months of pregnancy, McKenna alerted Miller that she intended to attend Columbia University and planned to move to New York.
Miller accused McKenna of fleeing and a New York judge accused McKenna of “absconding” with the fetus. That statement allowed a California court to grant Miller custody of the baby—before he was even born.
McKenna and Miller gained national attention as a “cross-country custody battle.” However, the NYT neglected to address how stark issues of language misuse have affected the coverage of the story as well as the parties involved.
Eckholm wrote that McKenna and Miller “cannot even agree on what to call the boy.” McKenna named the child Samuel, but Miller continued to call him “Nate,” referring to a middle name he gave the child after petitioning the court to modify his birth certificate.
In the post, Eckholm refers to the child by name once, using “Nate.” Referring to any name, especially only once in the entire story, shows support for one parent over the other—a statement an unbiased and ethical journalist should avoid.
McKenna’s story has gained national attention from women’s rights advocates, especially after a New York appeals court said that McKenna’s “basic rights had been violated.” The five-judge panel added that “Putative fathers have neither the right nor the ability to restrict a pregnant woman from her constitutionally protected liberty.”
So, where the story highlights clear issues of reproductive and custodial rights, it also exposes issues of harmful language misuse that often go unnoticed.
The words “virtually absconded,” used in the New York judge’s statement, not only veil McKenna’s actions in unfounded criminality, but also imply that McKenna moved to New York without notifying Miller.
However, McKenna actually notified Miller of her intent to move on October 9, 2012 via text message.
McKenna was wrongly criminalized by the language of the court.
The original, incorrect accusation of “absconding” was glaringly incorrect, constitutionally and morally.
Those words secured Miller’s ability to continue infringing on McKenna’s right to her body and on her maternal right to the custody of her son.
When the child was born, McKenna filed for temporary custody in New York.
Family Court refused and granted Miller, and his wife, custody of the boy on September 4, 2013. McKenna has spent a total of 10 days her son since.
A court has no legal right to rule on the travel rights of pregnant women. But, the original ruling in New York speared a series of decisions which granted Miller primary custody of the child.
Consider the effects of language before you use it.
The smallest things—in Eckholm’s case, one name—can mean something drastically different than what you intended.
- Custody Battle Raises Questions About the Rights of Women (nytimes.com)
- A Woman’s Right to Move (slate.com)
- The (un)Privileged Body: Have Fetus, Will Travel (humanwithuterus.wordpress.com)
- Bode Miller’s child-custody battle raises questions about women’s rights (seattletimes.com)