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Bode Miller’s Custody Case: What It Means for Pregnant Women Everywhere

Bode Miller's child custody case included a ruling that could have limited pregnant women's freedom to move around the country.For all the focus on athleticism at the Olympics, it’s the emotional backstories of the athletes themselves that really tug at the public’s heart strings. Who can resist the tale of the underdog who emerged a champion, the injury survivor who battled back to greatness, or the retiring veteran hoping to make one last push for victory before skiing off into the sunset?

Among the U.S. athletes, perhaps no one has experienced more personal drama before even arriving in Sochi than skier Bode Miller. When Miller won a bronze medal in the super-G event, media outlets were quick to report the hardships he had faced in the past year — the sudden death of his brother, recovering from knee surgery, and a custody battle over his infant son.

The custody battle, in particular, has seen a fair share of headlines, but to be honest, I hadn’t heard of it until Miller’s medal win put it back in the spotlight. Even then, I was primed not to care — at first glance, a celebrity’s nasty relations with an ex-girlfriend and a child caught in between is sad, sure, but it doesn’t seem to rise beyond your standard tabloid fodder.

But here’s where this story is different: the custody dispute between Miller and his child’s mother, Sara McKenna, raised the question of whether pregnant women should be legally obliged to live near their unborn children’s fathers.

Miller and McKenna dated briefly in California in 2012. By the time Miller learned McKenna was pregnant, ESPN The Magazine reports, the skier had moved on to a different relationship, with a pro beach volleyball player whom he later married.

While still pregnant, McKenna, a former Marine, left California and headed to New York to attend Columbia University on the GI Bill. She gave birth in February 2013.

That’s when a New York judge made a ruling that shocked women’s and reproductive rights groups, not to mention McKenna herself. Miller had filed paperwork to secure parental rights in California before the baby was born. The judge, as Slate reported, slammed McKenna “for ‘her appropriation of the child while in utero,’ which the judge called ‘irresponsible’ and ‘reprehensible.’” The custody case was ordered back to a California court.

McKenna, in other words, had been penalized for moving away from her child’s father while still pregnant.

A brief filed in support of McKenna by a coalition of advocacy groups later warned that the judge’s order “created a government mechanism that would permit both states and putative fathers-to-be to exert unjustified control over the location and life plans of pregnant women in a manner not reciprocated with respect to the expectant fathers.” (Read the excellent Slate article delving into the legalities of Miller and McKenna’s case here.)

Fortunately for McKenna, an appeals court overturned the order, and the case returned to New York, but not before the child was put in Miller’s custody for a while. After more court proceedings, the baby was back with McKenna. ESPN reports that after the Olympics, Miller and McKenna will share custody through a short-term agreement.

Now that jurisdiction’s been cemented in New York, I have to assume that any further custody disputes will be more typical, if still heart-wrenching. (How do you decide how often a child should be in New York with his mother or in California with his father? How much time will the baby be spending on airplanes, exactly?) And, more importantly for women’s rights watchers, the pregnant-woman-moving question seems resolved, at least in the legal sense.

But in the emotional sense, there’s room for debate. Should a pregnant woman’s desire to relocate trump an expectant father’s desire to live near his child? I thought one commenter on the Slate article had a refreshingly pragmatic take on the situation.

“A pregnant woman pretty much gets the entire say for nine months …” he wrote. “Hopefully she will choose to include you, in the hopes that you will be an involved father, which the child sorely needs. But if you don’t trust her to make those choices for nine months, DON’T PUT A BABY IN HER BELLY!”

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Photo by Christian Jansky/Creative Commons license

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