Having blogged on Monday about the tragic case of Daniel Pelka and the need to recognise our individual responsibility to speak out against injustice that we come across in our own lives, I discovered a heart-warming case in LifeSiteNews for 22nd July which illustrates this very point. It seems that until the 1980s, babies found before birth to have anencephaly, a condition which means the top part of the baby’s skull and brain does not form, were referred to in a well-known medical textbook in the US as “looking like a monster.”
This changed when a particular midwife discovered a pregnant woman was carrying a baby with this condition. She reflected later, “Imagine birthing knowing that your baby will die in the first couple of days. Add to that the underpinning of having heard and read that your baby is known as an anencephalic monster. Imagine how we all felt, the medical and nursing staff, anticipating that a monster was soon to be born.” When the baby girl was born the midwife noted that she had “a sweet face and rosebud lips.” A knitted cap was placed on her head to cover up the missing part. The little girl lived for three days and was held by her father as she died. The midwife continued to support the parents as they coped with their loss.
The midwife found that the “monster” description came from a popular medical text book, Human Labour and Birth, by a Dr Harry Oxhorn. She decided to challenge him direct: “I asked him if he had ever thought about the fact that most parents start to fall in love with their baby while he/she is still in utero. That the soon-to-be child starts to have a life, a future and a past all at once before birth. How dare he and other writers of textbooks refer to these babies as “monsters!”
Oxhorn responded to the challenge with an apology, saying he would change the description in the next edition of his textbook. This he did. The midwife stated, “Since 1986, when student midwives and doctors study birth defects [in Oxhorn’s book] they are not reading about an anencephalic monster but are reading about a baby with anencephaly. The words we use are very powerful. I encourage parents, midwives, nurses, doctors and others to correct a perceived wrong.”
The word “monster” is not merely insulting; it deliberately makes a human being seem non-human. The midwife’s personal stand for the dignity of human babies, however severely incapacitated, is all the more relevant when one reads that the notorious Australian and professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer, according to an article by Wesley Smith in LifeSiteNews for August 5, would prefer to use humans “with significant cognitive impairment”, rather than chimpanzees, in finding a vaccine for hepatitis. As Smith points out, Singer doesn’t believe that humans have a unique moral value and that therefore the weak and vulnerable need to be protected from exploitation. Indeed, Singer proposes, in his book The Great Ape Project, that apes should have “rights” like humans. “He admits this proposal is “speciesist”, in that it targets one group of animals for inclusion in the same moral community as people. But he wants to “break the species barrier”…Once apes have rights, the entire foundation of human exceptionalism will collapse – which of course is the point.”
In the light of the anti-human standpoint of academics like Singer, one midwife’s moral action on behalf of a severely impaired baby girl has significance well beyond changing one word in a medical textbook.