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The moral courage of one midwife is an example to us all

For every anti-human academic we need a moral midwife

By on Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A brave midwife stood up for the dignity of anencephalic babies (PA)

A brave midwife stood up for the dignity of anencephalic babies (PA)

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.

  • Dave

    As someone once wrote in his defence, ‘Singer is pure disembodied rationality–the Enlightenment made flesh’. There you have it.

  • $28180339

    We should be proud of this midwife, who most likely has a nursing education, telling a MD to change his textbook description of anencephaly. We should also congratulate Dr Oxhorn for having the humility to listen to a midwife & then take her advice.

    When will Dr Peter Singer & his writings just go away? He is giving updated justification for the next Hitler to commit genocide.

  • NatOns

    ‘The words we use are very powerful.’

    And not merely in moral matters.

  • Julian Lord

    One girl born in this condition has lived, last time I looked, til the age of 6.

    One of my brother’s fellow students at Oxford had severe cerebral atrophy from birth, but was otherwise a perfectly ordinary and intelligent young man.

    Eugenics, meanwhile, remain utterly despicable.

  • 676aldhelmstown710

    Readers may be interested to know that several years ago when I was the chairman of the committee that operates our local municipal cemetery I discovered the birth and death certificates clipped together for a baby girl. The girl’s age at death was given as five minutes and there was a note that during her five minutes of life she was baptised by a nurse from our local cottage hospital. May that dear child rest in peace in the loving arms of Mary the Mother of the World.

  • JR, Sydney

    Despite what Ms Phillips’ article might suggest there are many nurses , doctors and others who have acted similarly to the midwife is question. One that spings to mind is the estimable ( and unbelieving) Ina May Gaskin who wrote the book “Spiritual Midwifery” in the 1970s; I recommend the chapter on the birth of the anencephalic child “Ira”.

    I do take issue with the midwife’s ( well-intentioned ) objection to the term “anencephalic monster”. If she’s bothered to read any old text books of obstetrics she’s have seen the same thing over and over again. Most people do not realise that the origin of “monster” is fro the Latin “monstrare” ( to show) and in mediaeval times such children were seen to be a sign either of God’s displeasure or that the mother had had intercourse with an evil spirit. Back in pre-Reformation Europe a woman unfortunate enough to give birth to such a child could be hauled before the ecclesiastical courts and if she were unlucky, burned for sorcery.

    Several of my friends have been unlucky enough to have had anencephalic children ( in the 602 and 70s) and have reported ( with one exception) that they were treated with every kindess and respect) as was the still born or dying infant. The one exception was in a Catholic hospital where the mother was not permitted to see her child which was hustled away and presumably disposed of by the well-meaning Sisters who no doubt organised a hasty burial after the “quickie” baptism.

  • JR, Sydney

    Jeannine2, yoou can rest assured that the midwife in question did have a nursing education they all have to and have had to do so in the UK and everywhere else for at least 70 years. As for Peter Singer, he has his views and he isn’t going to go away any time soon. Whether you like it or not there are those who agree with him. He is into eugenics, not genocide, like it or not.

  • JR, Sydney

    Julian, you are probably confusing anencephaly with hydranencephaly. In the former condition not only the brain but the skull vault is also absent and so the mid and hind brain are exposed and there fore prone to dehydration and infection. Death is inevitable usually in a matter of hours but occasionally days. Chidren with hydranencephaly lack cortical brain tissue and look normal at birth. They are usually diagnosed early because they are “too good” ; they suck and sleep. They are blind and deaf ( the cranial nerves d not develop) and immobile. If a torch is shone through such an infant’s skull it transilluminates as there is nothing but fluid where the cerebrum should be. I have encountered one such child who lived to about 7 and finally succumbed to pneumonia.

  • Julian Lord

    Julian, you are probably confusing anencephaly with hydranencephaly.

    Nope. But thanks for the correct vocabulary anyway :-)

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    There are plenty of historic terms once current in scientific parlance that are today considered offensive, outmoded, and inappropriate. Many of these also have Latin or Greek roots.

    You don’t seem to believe that “monster” qualifies as one such. However, most other readers of these pages probably would. And I agree with them.

  • JR, Sydney

    MM: I don’t have a dog in this fight. Would you be as outraged by “Mongolian idiot” or “gargoyle”? I recall seeing both in paediatric textbooks of 40 years ago. Now if the excellent midwife had written to the authors in question I might be really impressed. I don’ t think writing to the authors showed any more “moral courage” than is shown by the majority of posters on this board.

  • Marion (Mael Muire)

    “Would you be as outraged by ‘Mongolian idiot’ or ‘gargoyle’”?

    I’m not sure would say that I am “outraged” by the terms; I object to them. Most decent folk would object to all three terms, or any others which attack the dignity of the human individual.

    “Now if the excellent midwife had written to the authors in question I might be really impressed.”

    I think most readers will agree with me, that it does take noteworthy courage on the part of one who has little in the way of scholarly credentials to write to register their objections to an author with much academic cred. (unless one is in the habit of indulging in solecisms).

    Your mileage may vary.

    “I don’ t think writing to the authors showed any more ‘moral courage’ than is shown by the majority of posters on this board.”

    Most posters on this board are anonymous. Zero moral courage required. (Apples, may I present oranges?)

  • JR, Sydney

    Zero moral courage may not be required but it helps in every forum. The majority of posters on this board are big on moral outrage, which can be tedious.

    The said midwife’s lack of “academic credentials” is neither here nor there. Anyone can write an indignant letter to the press, post on a site or express their views on a talk-back radio programme. In a fee society or a message board ( with any luck) these views can be published( and in our society) with impunity.

    Do the terms anencephalic monster, Mongolian idiot or gargoyle attack the dignity of the human individual? I am not sure that they do. Politically incorrect? Yes. Acceptable for their time? Yes. No worse than some of the terms of opprobrium slung at some posters here by others who perceive themselves to be the “righteous”.

    I fail to see what makes the midwife’s epistle to the author such a gesture of “moral courage” or why she should be an example to us all. She had a beef, she expressed her views. It does not make her a poster girl for the anti-eugenic brigade or anything else. It is not as though she was going to be ostracised socially, lose her job or be packed off to the gulag for saying her piece. This is not world-shattering stuff. It is hardly Martin Luther’s message as nailed up on the cathedral door of Wittenberg cathedral.

  • Marion (MM)

    You have not made the case that (1) labelling children with disabilities should not be deemed offensive by any civilized people, nor (2) that this midwife’s efforts in, as the young people say, “getting in the face” of a physician and author concerning an instance of (1) did not require some noteworthy degree of moral courage.

    And I doubt that you ever will.

    Have a nice life and good-bye.

  • JR, Sydney

    And goodbye to you too. It’s not about “labelling children” as much as one individual’s pointless little rant being labelled as ” moral courage” and ” an example to us all” which it is not. As I said I have no dog in this fight. If all you want is the last word then good luck to you.

  • Charles Martel

    Perhaps you missed the point that most of these physically imperfect children are being destroyed by their parents in utero, partly due to the degrading or dehumanising terms applied to them by medical experts, and usually at the urging of these same experts.

  • JR, Sydney

    Charles Martel, antenatal diagnosis of foetal abnormality with or without termination of pregnancy is actually not the point of either the OP or the subsequent comments.

    Parents choose to have a termination of an unviable or severely disabled child . That is their choice not the choice of any “experts” and not because of whatever terms. It has nothing to do with words or names, which if you read my previous comments more carefully hark from a time when there was no antenatal diagnosis. These children until recently were born at term. Some survived , some did not.