By Rabbi Ariel Abel
Every childbearing parent’s worst nightmare came true when the children of the Casanellas and Cushworth families were swapped shortly after birth in El Salvador.
Against a background of accusations against the gynaecologist doctor, the babies were reunited after three long months following DNA testing with their biological parents.
What is the Torah’s view of babies swapped at birth? The famous tale of Solomonic wisdom tells how two prostitutes who shared the same lodgings ended up with each other’s babies.
The sad detail is that one was dead and the one accused the other of rolling over onto her own baby and suffocating him and then swapping the dead with the live child. Solomon’s wisdom was to threaten the death of the live one and then identified the merciful one as the true mother.
Nowadays, DNA testing is used to identify parentage. The Cushworths are British nationals who noticed that their baby suddenly looked very different from the baby they first saw when newborn – skin colour, genitals and features bore no relation to either of them – but they were told that changes happen at birth.
A DNA test showed there to be a zero percent chance of parentage. In modern Halachic works there is debate as to whether DNA is a certain sign of parentage or a strong, but not certain indication.
To release a widow from the status of being a chained woman, “aguna” – so that she be allowed to remarry – the late former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadiah Yosef ruled that a swab of DNA was sufficient to prove the violent death of a husband in a mafia killing in Russia. The actions of the doctor, if proven to be true, would be very serious indeed.
An offence of human trafficking has as its maximum punishment the death penalty. In El Salvador, the swap back of the babies took place in the Prosecutor General’s office. In a Jewish state abiding by Torah values, it is the function of state to ensure that issues of identity are resolved: all matters of status are also within the ambit of the religious court, the Beth Din, as both in Islam and Judaism are affected by matters of lineage and inheritance in the case of a baby swap.
The Other Son is a very poignant Israeli film about the many religious, cultural and political implications for the lives of a Palestinian infant and a Jewish infant swapped at birth.
• Ariel Abel is rabbi of Princes Road Synagogue. www.princesroad.org