Solomon's Decision

WHEN confronted by the confusion of two mothers claiming one child, even Solomon in all his wisdom could not arrive at a judgment. He was forced to invent a harshly ingenious test, threatening the life of the child, in order to reveal by her anguish the identity of the true mother.

By contrast, how confidently everybody - from the editorializing press to those snapping off their responses to public opinion pollsters - knows to whom Baby Jessica should belong.

Lawyers and psychologists on both sides have predicted a lifetime of trauma for the two-year-old if she were to be awarded to the "wrong" side. Special advocacy groups, favoring either the rights of biological parents or adoptive parents, have made the litigation their battlefield.

The case has been treated as a media spectacle.

The real questions here are these: Who has more love in the heart at this moment? Who will prove the more effective parents over a period of 20 years? These are questions calling for another Solomon.

But the Solomonic analogy, so often cited in the case of Baby Jessica, is not a perfect fit. When Solomon faced two women each claiming the same child, he knew that one was the mother and the other was not, and that the one who was not the mother had no claim to the child. The question was determining which was which.

In the case of Jessica, there are two sets of parents, each with a strong claim on the child.

A couple of assumptions badly need to be corrected:

1. This is not a criminal case where one pair of parents are guilty villains and the other pair are innocent saints.

2. One of the two comparatively innocent parties must lose, but that does not mean that the child over whom they are contesting cannot survive and flourish, as millions of children survive, for instance, the ordeals of divorce and sturdily go on.

What can be done? Decisions about the fate of children must not be allowed to drag on for months and years. Nor should inconsistent laws in different states - in Jessica's case, Iowa and Michigan - be left to contradict each other to the point that adjudication becomes even more confusing and agonizing.

Solomon knew that true maternal love has more to do with concern for the best interests - rather than possession - of the child.

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