At what point is a woman too fat to take care of her children? That's the question being raised in Australia, where Kylie Lannigan, a 29-year-old, 280-pound woman, was told that she needs to lose 90 pounds before she can adopt a child with her husband. Lannigan had already lost one-tenth of her body weight for the sake of the adoption, but the Department of Human Services wants her to lose more. To make things worse, Lannigan suffers from polycystic ovarian syndrome, a disease that can cause both fertility problems and weight gain.
When it comes to body size, adoption regulations vary from country to country. China, for instance, won't allow parents with a body mass index of more than 40 to adopt children, while South Korea and Taiwan draw the line at a BMI of 30. Australia, meanwhile, may require prospective parents who are obese to submit to a health exam.
Given that obesity comes with a predisposition to problems like hypertension, diabetes and cardiac disease, an applicant's weight may seem like a valid concern for adoption agencies, most of which have general standards mandating that children be placed with healthy parents. Some studies have shown that obese parents tend to have overweight children, even when the child is adopted, and a movement is under way in the U.K. to consider childhood obesity for children under the age of 12 "neglect by the parents," and to "encourage legal protection for the child."
According to fat activists, however, judgment against fat people is often moral disgust thinly veiled in medical language and superficial concerns about "health." Just because a woman is fat does not necessarily mean that she is unhealthy, or a bad mother. And obesity has been tied to a variety of factors that are outside individual control, including genetics and, recently, microbial organisms.
At a certain point, debates on weight discrimination touch on questions about basic rights. Should citizens be offered alternatives if they're too large to comfortably use public transportation? Should they be denied a ride to the hospital if they cannot fit into the ambulance? These questions may sound rhetorical, but they're not; last week, Calgary, Alberta, began using an ambulance designed to carry patients weighing up to 1,000 pounds -- the first of its kind in Canada -- in order "to keep patient dignity."
Going back to Lannigan's predicament: Does a fat woman have the right to be a mother? It's not a question with any easy answers, but given the rates of obesity in most Western countries, it's not one that's going away anytime soon.