Watch your language: Judge’s statement grants custody to wrong parent while unfairly castigating mother

In a New York Times story posted November 23, author Erik Eckholm told the story of a mother denied her reproductive rights.

Photo credit: The New York Times
Photo credit: The New York Times

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.

Photo credit: @Sara_A_McKenna
“It’s Brooklyn baby.” from McKenna’s Twitter

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.

From Mckenna's Twitter  (@Sarah_A_McKenna)
From Mckenna’s Twitter

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.

Photo credit: @Sarah_A_McKenna
Photo credit: @Sarah_A_McKenna

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.


6 thoughts on “Watch your language: Judge’s statement grants custody to wrong parent while unfairly castigating mother”

  1. So deny a father access to his child, it’s Tuesday, no one cares. Deny a woman access to her child, it’s a feminist issue and an insult to women everywhere. Really what are you trying to argue here, that men don’t matter. Men don’t count. Fathers have no rights. Women Women and only women matter?

    1. Not at all. I was simply addressing that the language used in the original decision by the New York judge was unconstitutional. Legal limitations cannot be placed on the travel of a pregnant woman. Because of that, incorrectly enacted, decision a series of unjust decisions followed in New York and California depriving both parties of adequate time with their child.
      In addition, I have never claimed that men should be objectified and women placed on a pedestal. On my about page, I clearly stated that I’m very pro-human rights, as in pro gender equality with the hope for the eventual nullification of gender importance.
      This piece didn’t focus on the parties or who deserved what, but it focused on the language used during the court decisions and within the NYT article. It explained how both instances of language misuse caused unnecessary harm to a party.
      Nowhere in that story did I claim one sex should eternally triumph over the other. There was no sentence that identified my, personal, position in support of either party.
      I’m sorry you felt so wronged by the intent of the story, but I assure you, that was not it’s aim.
      Thank you for taking the time to post your comments. I appreciate hearing your thoughts and feelings, and hope this clarified things for you.

      1. What is not said is every bit as important, often more important that what was said. I was point at the flaw of omition, not a flaw with the aim. When talking about parental rights women women and only women is a horrible flaw of omition. Men are half of the parents, if we don’t discuss father’s rights we are not talking about equality. By omitting the rights of the father you are making the tacit claim of gendered dominance.

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