A flesh and blood debate Families: The apparent switch of two Virginia babies at birth raises the issue of nature vs. nurture.

August 05, 1998|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Trading pictures and sharing stories, two Virginia families began to delicately make their way down a painful road yesterday, trying to get used to the idea that the blond girl each raised is not their flesh and blood.

The 3-year-olds, Rebecca Grace Chittum and Callie Marie Johnson, were apparently switched at birth. Tests still need to be done to confirm that.

So far, the families seem to be working together and may keep the children where they are. But as they debate how to handle the situation, the families find themselves at the center of an emotional, long-running debate: What's more important -- nature nurture, a person's biological makeup or the home she grows up in?

While the law generally presumes that children are best raised by their biological parents, psychologists say research has long shown that genetics are not nearly as important as the people who care for a child.

"What matters to kids is that there is somebody there to take care of them and love them and is consistent not genetics," said Dr. Laura Foster, clinical child psychologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

Added Dr. Barbara Howard, a behavioral and developmental pediatrician at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center: "People will die for their kids. The feelings are incredibly powerful. But it's because you've raised them. It's not because they're your flesh and blood per se."

The question over the two girls surfaced in the past month, when Paula Johnson took a boyfriend to court to establish paternity. The test was negative. Johnson then took a blood test herself and learned that Callie Marie was not her biological daughter. That led her to the University of Virginia hospital, where Callie Marie and Rebecca Grace were born in late June 1995.

Bioethicists and other experts say the Virginia case raises hope that the social element, the relationship developed over time, will finally be given proper weight in child care issues. The families have talked about keeping the child each has and setting up visitation rights for the biological family members.

"Whatever is best for these two children, whether it be to stay with the biological parents, whether they be switched, or whatever," said Paula Johnson, her voice cracking, at a news conference yesterday in Charlottesville, Va.

In the past several years, there have been widely publicized cases in which a child was taken away from adoptive parents because a biological father surfaced who didn't know he had a child. The courts look to what is in the child's best interest. In some cases, the courts define that as being raised by the biological father, even if it means taking the child from the only home he or she has known.

"Genes are seen as the Holy Grail. People see themselves as being determined by their genes, and that has its manifestation in court decisions," said David Magnus, a professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "But it's all a mistake. It rests on a false view of how genes really work and how important they are."

People share many genes, Magnus said, and people are more than a product of their genes; they are a result of the complex interplay between their genetics and the environment. Switching girl or boy from the only home they knew would cause the greatest psychological impact, said Dr. Thomas Pentz, a senior psychologist at the Sheppard Pratt Health System. He said it would disrupt their capacity to form stable attachments, to develop a sense there is a constancy in relationships.

Still, in a society that some say overvalues genetics, the Virginia case has relevancy for many Americans. Thousands of couples are tapping expensive reproductive technology to help them have babies. Parents across the country are wrestling with how, or whether, to tell children that they are a product of another woman's egg, or an anonymous man's sperm, or that they were carried by a woman they do not know.

"There are so many different ways to get babies now. The question comes up: Should you tell the kid?" asked Dr. Barbara Howard, a behavioral and developmental pediatrician at Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

While there are no studies on how often switching may happen, Magnus and others said it probably occurs more than anyone realizes. By one estimate, accidental mismatches of mothers and babies are more common than hospital abductions.

Officials at the University of Virginia hospital say that with their safeguards, the swap could not have been an accident, and the University of Virginia Police Department and Virginia State Police are investigating.

In some ways, this has always been a problem. After World War II, in early studies using blood, false paternity was as high as 10 percent to 15 percent, Magnus said. In recent years, national figures have been at about 6 percent.

"A lot of people aren't related to who they think they are. What do we tell people?" Magnus said.

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