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How Different Is Starving Disabled Babies To Death Than Aborting Them?


In 1982, a child was born in Bloomington, Indiana, with a condition called a tracheoesophageal fistula, that is, a connection between the esophagus and the windpipe. This condition prevents an affected child from being fed but could be remedied with an operation with (even at the time) a 90 percent success rate.

At the recommendation of the obstetrician, however, the child’s parents refused either to have this operation performed or even to feed the baby with IV fluids. Another physician attempted to intervene, as well as lawyers and nurses, but the courts rejected their appeals. The baby, called Baby Doe, starved to death after seven days.

One might expect the reason they rejected the surgery to be that they were adherents of a faith-healing religion, or perhaps because the baby was born prematurely or with such severe disabilities that he had so little chance of survival that the surgery was considered unnecessarily invasive for a dying child.

The parents actually rejected the surgery because the baby had Down syndrome. They chose to let their baby die because they did not want to rear a disabled child.

Neglect Happens Too Often

Nat Henthoff chronicled the events two years later. This wasn’t an isolated case, he wrote. A Boston TV station did an investigative report titled “Death in the Nursery,” which examined death certificates and interviewed doctors and parents to learn that there was “a hell of a lot of infanticide going on,” in which lifesaving treatment, or even food and water, was withheld from babies with disabilities, including those with spina bifida and Down syndrome.

He cites a poll of California pediatricians in 1975, in which 61 percent said they would let the baby die. Another Massachusetts poll found 51 percent of pediatricians stating they would not recommend surgery in such a case.

However much these decisions might have been made behind closed doors, in 1972, The New York Times published an op-ed from a physician defending the refusal to provide medical care to such children, and defending a parent’s right to make this decision to consign her child to needless death. (Hat tip to Twitter account @CoCoTaxpayers.)  The author (who published without anonymity or a pseudonym, although I choose to omit his name) writes of a family, the Gs, with a Down syndrome child in need of intestinal surgery:

Baby G’s pediatrician expected me to perform this ‘simple operation.’ The interns and residents were eager to assist; the anesthetist was standing by. Then Mr. G asked, ‘Don’t we have any choice?’ And, indeed, I felt they did.

The choice they made was—no surgery. They had no intention of raising a human being whose maximum achievement might be the ability to write his own name. Furthermore, they did not wish to sentence their child to an institutional existence. ‘If I knew the baby would be mongoloid,’ Mrs. G said, ‘I would have had an abortion.’ This argument allowed the G’s to live with their decision. When Mr. G called me a year later on the anniversary of their baby’s death and asked me if thought they had made the right decision, I said, ‘Yes, think you did.’

Washington Post columnist George Will, whose son has Down syndrome, raised awareness of this case in a column titled “The Killing Will Not Stop.” Two years later, in the Baby Jane Doe case, parents were unwilling to treat a baby with spina bifida until so ordered by the court. Finally, in 1984, President Reagan signed the Child Abuse Amendments of 1984, “making it illegal for doctors to withhold nourishment or medically indicated treatments unless the infant is comatose, the treatment will promote its death or is ‘futile in terms of the survival of the infant'” (as chronicled at Free Republic and Wikipedia).

Today, there are no more reports of Baby Does in the news, but it’s not because we have evolved into a society that values the lives of the disabled more, as that 1972 New York Times author hoped; we have simply become far more efficient about killing babies before they are born.

But how different is it? Lives deemed unworthy of life are still being killed. We’ve merely constructed a legal fiction that says their legal protection does not begin until birth. (In the Netherlands, they take it a step further, with their Groningen Protocol that “permits doctors to administer lethal injections to infants.) We assure ourselves in this way that we are not monsters, because we would not allow real living human beings to be directly killed. It is only a being with a superficial resemblance to a human that is being given a lethal injection.

This brings us to Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam who, in an interview (cited here in the National Review transcription) argued in defense of late abortions, repeating the assertion that these are always due to the most serious of fetal deformities.

Dropping The Pretense

“This is why decisions such as this should be made by providers, physicians, and the mothers and fathers that are involved,” Northam said. “When we talk about third-trimester abortions, these are done with the consent of obviously the mother, with the consent of the physician — more than one physician, by the way — and it’s done in cases where there may be severe deformities. There may be a fetus that’s non-viable.”

He continued: “If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

Now, to be sure, the label “late-term abortion” is a slippery one, and pro-choicers are trying to swap this out for “later abortion” instead. It may be that abortions in the very last months of pregnancy are rarely for capricious reasons, although when most people (especially those of the muddle, the “messy, illogical middle,” as Megan McArdle labels them and herself) think of “late abortion,” as abortions from that point when the baby looks very unmistakably human rather than like a peculiar sort of space alien.

Guttmacher Institute study from 2013 reports that women seeking second‐trimester abortions did not realize they were pregnant until much later than women seeking first‐trimester abortions, and that myriad logistical barriers slow down access to abortion once a woman is beyond 13 weeks. Certain physical health conditions, such as obesity and a lack of pregnancy symptoms, increase the risk of late discovery. Research from the United Kingdom has identified uncertainty about what to do if pregnant and changing personal circumstances, such as dissolution of romantic partnerships or job loss, as associated with delay in seeking abortion.

Separately, just last week, Teen Vogue gave us the story of a woman whose late abortion, at 26 weeks, was simply due to a medical condition, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), which causes irregular cycles, meaning that she was unaware of her pregnancy sooner.

The Desires Of Parents

But even taking Northam at his word that he is speaking of abortions only at the very end of pregnancy and that his support is contingent on these only happening in cases of “severe deformities” (though, to be sure, he says only that “there may be severe deformities” and that there “may be” a non-viable fetus), his language evokes that of the New York Times doctor. He does not describe a decision-making process primarily oriented around assessing the newborn’s condition, and the appropriateness of medical care by evaluating whether the prognosis is good or the care is futile. His focus is instead on the wishes of the parents.

Here’s the reality: terms like “personhood” do not have some independent meaning. Pro-choicers, especially those to the left of McArdle’s Muddle, do not believe (as the Babylon Bee reported satirically) that clumps of cells miraculously transform into babies upon exiting the womb.

The reality is that the decision to withhold the legal/moral status of “person” from an unborn child is a means of providing some sort of pseudo-ethical words and justification around a pre-existing belief that neither fetuses nor neonates possess any human right except for that society and law chooses to grant them––and there is no reason that the arbitrary dividing line of “birth” is truly hard and fast.

The question is, can we on the other side of the Muddle persuade others that this is wrong, in the same way that people responded to the case of Baby Doe 37 years ago?