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Baby Doe Case: A Life Not Worth Living?

On April 9, 1982, a person who came to be known as Baby Doe was born at Bloomington Hospital in Bloomington, Indiana. He was born with two conditions, Down's syndrome and tracheoesophageal fistula, a birth defect in the throat that makes eating food orally impossible.

In Baby Doe's case, the birth defect was a correctable condition that would have allowed to him to eat normally. The prognosis was good and a nearby hospital was available to perform the ordinary medical treatment. Even if the surgery was not an option, Baby Doe was still capable of receiving food and water intravenously. Instead of having the surgery begin immediately, Baby Doe's obstetrician advised the parent that instead of surgery they could simply do nothing, which would result in their son dying of dehydration or starvation after a few days. The doctor's advice was that he thought that because Baby Doe had Down's syndrome, his life was not worth living and it would be in the family's best interest to have their son die. The parents agreed.

In an article in the Chicago Tribune, the doctor implied his experience with family members who have a child with disabilities influenced his views that Baby's Doe life wasn't valuable.

"I believe there are things that are worse than having [such] a child die. And one of them is that it might live," he said.

The hospital brought the case before a judge, who ruled that the parents had the right to decide between treatment options, including the option that provided no actual treatment. An appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court resulted in a 3-1 vote to let Baby Doe die. News reports indicated that at least 10 couples offered to adopt Baby Doe. Despite those efforts, Baby Doe died due to disturbing complications on April 15, six days after birth. Requests to give Baby Doe food and water temporarily so that the case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court fell on deaf ears.

The case touched off a legal and ethical firestorm. Outraged, President Ronald Reagan ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to withhold any federal funding from hospitals that withhold medical care in order to allow disabled infants to die.

At the center of the ethical debate was whether a child with Down's syndrome should be valued less than other people. Children with Down's syndrome are particularly in danger both in the womb and after birth. Some statistics show as high as 90% of babies diagnosed with Down's syndrome are aborted, and the children who are not killed in the womb have a higher risk of other birth defects that may require treatment after birth.

Right to Life of Michigan opposes all attempts to legalize or condone euthanasia and infanticide. It is dangerous to allow others to decide if a person's life isn't worth living. We recognize that every human life is valuable, and human beings should not have to fit certain qualifications of age or intelligence to be worthy of the same inalienable right to life.

Right to Life of Michigan maintains an extensive file on the Baby Doe case, if you would like more information please contact our State Central office at 616-532-2300.

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