Imagine, for a moment, that you are pregnant and in a foreign country completing training for the airline you work for, and you have a panic attack because you can’t find some critical documents. You’re stressed, you are far from your family and your home, and you call for help. The police arrive and take you to a hospital, which you realize is actually a mental health facility, and so you request to be taken back to your hotel room.
Instead, you are sectioned and held on the ward for five weeks. One morning, you’re told not to eat breakfast, and when you protest, you’re sedated.
When you wake up, your baby is gone, your abdomen searing with the pain of a C-section, and you’re informed that your child has been taken into care.
Sound like a nightmare?
For an unnamed Italian woman, it’s anything but, because this exact situation happened to her in the UK when she was training with Ryanair over the summer of 2012. 15 months later, her child remains in the “care” of British social services in Essex, despite her pleas to return the baby to her custody or that of the father, or to transfer her daughter to the custody of a family member in the United States.
Thanks to the hard work of the staff at the “Telegraph,” the case has not faded from the public eye, and in fact, it’s currently blowing up, as well it should be: this story is so horrific that it almost defies imagination.
There are many complex intersecting issues at work here: immigrant rights in Europe, a continent growing increasingly hostile to immigrants; reproductive justice and freedom; and disability rights. Any full analysis of the case has to include all of these issues, because they are interlocking with each other and they cannot be teased neatly apart. Everyone, in other words, has a dog in this fight.
Obviously, one issue that comes immediately to hand is that of immigrant rights. Though this woman was in the United Kingdom with legal documentation and enjoys the relative privilege of being an EU citizen, her rights as an Italian were heavily abused, and in fact, the Italian High Court is considering whether the UK has overstepped its boundaries in this situation.
But there’s another issue here, that of the father, a Senegalese man who can’t even enter the UK to assert his parental rights. If the mother is being deemed unfit to parent (about which more in a moment) the logical placement would be with the next of kin, which in this case would be the baby girl’s father, but Essex social services is pretending as though he doesn’t exist. Given the considerable hatred slung at African immigrants, it’s not surprising that he’s not even being considered as an option for the baby, who may end up in the care of strangers despite the fact that she has a warm and loving family network ready to receive her.
In the court ruling (many thanks to Flavia Dzodan to pointing me at this document, and for her tireless work on advocacy for immigration issues in the EU), his immigration status is speculated upon, as though this has some kind of bearing on whether he is a fit father. The judge even makes a sneering point of commenting on how the father didn’t travel to the UK to get involved in the case, ignoring the fact that there may be complications involved in traveling for an African man involved in a high profile court case who has been accused of a questionable immigration status. Leaving Italy could ultimately result in detainment and deportation.
The fact that the baby’s father is an African man who is likely undocumented has a tremendous bearing on how this case is being handled, and yet he is being erased from much of the coverage of the case. It’s reflective of a larger social attitude in the EU and the UK that the rights of immigrants, including immigrant parents, don’t matter, and this is a critical human rights issue.
Clearly, ripping a baby from a pregnant woman’s uterus without consent and then whisking the baby away is also a profound violation of bodily autonomy and the larger framework of reproductive justice. While the UK in many ways is much more progressive on reproductive justice issues than the US, this case is jawdropping in its sheer horror and callous disregard for the feeling, autonomy, and dignity of the mother.
I want my daughter back, I am suffering like an animal. I was forced into a C-Section without my consent. The day of the forced delivery I thought they were moving me from one room to another while I kept saying I wanted to return to Italy. Then I was sedated and when I woke up, she was gone. She was taken away from me.
That’s from the mother’s statement to Italian publication “Via Repubblica” (Italian to English translation by Flavia Dzodan). This is a heinous and horrific violation of human rights on so many levels -- here is a pregnant woman who was eagerly anticipating the birth of her third child, only to discover that the right to determine the timing and place of her birth would be determined by the government. And that the right to keep the baby would also be determined by the government, depriving her of all autonomy.
There is, of course, a long history of controlling women by controlling access to their children, and as Dzodan has noted in her work, the European Union at the moment is persecuting immigrant mothers. Women have their children seized on the grounds that they are unfit parents, with the underlying case rooted in “cultural” or “religious” differences; parents who are Muslim, for example, are suddenly unfit parents, evidently, as are parents who are Black or Middle Eastern. In the UK, immigration policies routinely separate children from their parents in a situation that would be viewed as a travesty if it involved citizens.
This case also hits especially close to home for mental health advocates, as it has clear and terrifying implications for mentally ill parents, another historically vulnerable group. According to the court case, the mother has bipolar disorder, which may have played a role in her panic attack, and was certainly why she was profiled and forced into the hospital in the first place. Mentally ill parents live with the constant threat of having their children taken from them on the grounds that they’re unfit simply because of their mental health conditions, so this story is a particularly grim reminder of the perilous hold on autonomy society grants to mentally ill people.
Key in this is the phrase “society grants.” Even in a culture and society where people are supposedly free and equal, there is a broad tolerance for the restriction of rights of mentally ill people on the grounds that sectioning, forcible institutionalization, and other measures are necessary for the safety of patients or the people around them. In this case, a woman’s autonomy was taken from her because she was mentally ill and that was considered reason enough to rip her baby from her body.
Like many people with bipolar disorder, this mother would have been in a delicate position with her pregnancy. She has been accused of not taking her medications and allowing herself to become unstable, but the truth is more complicated than that. Most medications people use to manage bipolar disorder are known teratogens, and dangerous to take during pregnancy; in some cases, people actually need to sign paperwork attesting to the fact that they will use birth control, do not intend to get pregnant, and will immediately see a doctor if they suspect pregnancy while on these medications.
These psychiatric medications can do considerable harm to developing fetus, especially in the key early stages of the first trimester. Bipolar parents who choose to carry their own children are thus forced to make a tough choice: they need to stop taking the medications which are most effective, and work closely with a mental health provider on maintaining during pregnancy. That may involve the use of therapy, alternative medications, and a variety of other options.
People with bipolar disorder have the right to have children, and should not have this right taken away on the grounds that they should take their medication at all times. This woman took a calculated risk and, for all we know, may have been working with mental health providers during her pregnancy. She might have been aware that traveling for work carried risks, but might have needed to in order to keep her job.
In the end, her decision led to having parental rights taken away from her, and a custody fight that is now sweeping across international borders. As Dzodan puts it, “this is the result of having two parents who are both deemed 'undesirable' by the legal system.”
And it is a story that should be terrifying because of all that it represents, and because of its profoundly intersectional nature: this is not a case that can be viewed in isolation. It is not just an immigrant rights issue. It is not just a reproductive rights issue. It is not just a disability rights issue. It is all of these things in a complex and horrific muddle with a terrified, isolated, and miserable woman at its center, fighting to give her child the best life possible.