Charlie Gard’s Case Delivers Déjà Vu Of Twentieth-Century Eugenics

Charlie Gard’s Case Delivers Déjà Vu Of Twentieth-Century Eugenics

The brief but meaningful life of Charlie Gard forces us to confront how we view our society’s weakest members.
Caroline D'Agati
By

A baby is born with intense physical and developmental problems. Extensive treatment is necessary to preserve his life, but with an unsure likelihood of success. The doctors in charge refuse to treat him on the grounds that it will likely be unsuccessful and that the child is suffering. They remain inactive, despite pleas for the boy’s life.

At the last moment, one doctor steps forward to attempt a life-saving treatment, but by then it is too late. The baby dies and the watching world is left to make sense of tragedy.

You may be surprised to hear that this is not the story of Charlie Gard in 2017, but of a newborn known as “Baby Bollinger,” who died in Chicago in 1915. He was less than a week old.

The details of Baby Bollinger’s condition still aren’t completely clear. Sources say that he was born with some paralysis on one side of his body, was missing or had deformities in his ears, and his shoulder may have been connected directly to his head. His spine was unusually curved and he had a significant problem with his intestinal tract. All accounts agree that immediate surgery was necessary to save his life.

Dr. Harry Haiselden, the chief of hospital staff, refused to operate on the child. He believed that, though the child had a good chance of survival from surgery, “There is no doubt the child would be defective mentally and morally if allowed to live. It might be criminal. Certainly it would be dependent. It would be a burden to itself and to society.”

While there are great differences between Baby Bollinger and Charlie Gard, there are also eerie similarities. In both cases, there was disagreement on the child’s prognosis and level of suffering. In both cases, elites in medicine and government were allowed to run out the clock on critically ill children. For both children, their ultimate “usefulness” dictated how hard the world would fight for their survival.

To Some, Haiselden Was a Hero

As with Charlie, the fate of Baby Bollinger polarized the American public. Haiselden received hundreds of irate phone calls begging him to reconsider. Many press outlets lambasted him. However, Haiselden and his actions had a sinister but powerful advocate: the eugenics movement.

Eugenics is the father of modern-day genetics. In the first decades of the last century, many in America and across the world believed that heredity dictated everything from poverty to intelligence. Those with “defective” genes should not be able to pass them on and weaken the rest of society.

By 1915, America’s elites were convinced that the survival of humanity depended on eliminating the weak from the gene pool. Race and class-driven social Darwinism was fueled by “scientific” research from respected organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution. It had vocal support from folks like Margaret Sanger, Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell, and Haiselden. From the halls of academia to high society, eugenics was considered scientific fact.

Armed with these “facts,” 33 states enacted laws for forced sterilization of the “feeble-minded,” the deaf, epileptics, the handicapped, and others whose lives eugenicists found to be unworthy. This led to the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans. Not surprisingly, immigrants, African-Americans, and the poor were most often those deemed “unfit.”

So when Baby Bollinger’s case came into the public eye in 1915, many thought that allowing the “defective” newborn to die was for the good of both the child and society. Haiselden was doing the world “a favor.” Ironic proof of this can be found in one of Haiselden’s most ardent defenders: Helen Keller. She proposed that juries of medical experts should, “decide whether a man is fit to associate with his fellows, whether he is fit to live.”

‘Biological and Racial Mistakes’

While renowned eugenicist and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger did not specifically comment on the Bollinger case, one can only assume her sentiments. In Sanger’s 1922 book “The Pivot of Civilization,” her thoughts on biological frailty are quite clear: “Every single case of inherited defect, every malformed child, every congenitally tainted human being brought into this world is of infinite importance to that poor individual; but it is of scarcely less importance to the rest of us and to all of our children who must pay in one way or another for these biological and racial mistakes.”

Thankfully, these two tragedies are not identical. Charlie Gard has loving parents who have fought intensely for their son’s chance to survive. Baby Bollinger died with the tacit consent of his parents, who agreed to let Haiselden treat him as he saw fit.

And while Haiselden’s perverse belief in eugenics made him boast of the deaths of many weak, imperfect newborns in his care, Charlie’s death will be universally mourned. I am certain that nurses, doctors, courts, and the greater public who support the decision to end Charlie’s treatment do so out of love and sympathy for a sick, helpless child.

Still, there is a frightening similarity that cannot be ignored: Charlie Gard and Baby Bollinger were both deemed unworthy of survival. Doctors, courts and the public have weighed in and decided that death is superior to lives like theirs. In different nations, a century apart, the systems in place to protect human life have failed two of society’s most helpless members.

And while no one celebrates this little boy’s tragic passing, do not many think it’s “all for the best?” Would they not say in hushed tones to close friends, “Maybe it would have been better if he were never born at all?” Don’t many well-intentioned folks believe as twentieth-century eugenicists believed—that Charlie’s death is nature “righting itself?”

Inasmuch as You Have Done It for the Least of These

No one has made Haiselden’s evil, perverse argument that Charlie Gard should be allowed to die “for the good of humanity.” But the end result is the same: society’s medical and legal elites have gotten to decide that dying is for Charlie’s own good.

Tragically, Charlie Gard is neither the first nor the last vulnerable child to be let down by the system that is supposed to defend him. With medical technology and knowledge of genetics advancing every day, these moral dilemmas will only become more common.

What’s more, as Western society is increasingly detached from a Judeo-Christian foundation, human dignity is no longer self-evident, endowed by a Creator. As a result, our society lacks the moral vocabulary to explain why a human life that is not “useful” is still sacred. I imagine this struggle will only worsen with time.

The brief but meaningful life of Charlie Gard forces us to confront how we view our society’s weakest members. Sanger saw babies like Charlie as “biological and racial mistakes” and sought the power of the state to enforce their limitation. Charlie’s parents see him as “an absolute warrior” and are grateful “for the joy he has brought to our lives.” In a just society, whose legacy will endure longer: Sanger’s or Charlie’s?

Caroline D'Agati is a writer, former park ranger, and New Jersey expatriate living in DC. She studied English at Georgetown and media studies at The New School. You can follow her on Twitter at @carodagati.

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