The Baby without a Brain

With her pudgy cheeks and tiny fists, Theresa looked like a normal infant. But under her baby cap, Theresa's skull sloped straight down. She had no brain. Theresa had a rare deformity where the brain fails to grow. All she had was a brain stem, which regulated her breathing, heart function, and reflexes. Most children born with this disorder die within hours. Their organs are often used for transplant operations for other infants. That's what Theresa's parents planned on, too. But Theresa didn't die. She hung on for nine days--and thereby ignited a great controversy. For weeks, debates raged in the press over what to do about Baby Theresa. You see, the slower the death process, the more a person's organs deteriorate, making them unusable for transplants. If Theresa was going to be a donor, doctors couldn't wait for her to die naturally. They would have to kill her. As news reports tactfully put it, they would have to "hasten her death." Theresa's parents wanted to go ahead. But current law says organs can't be donated until the patient is brain dead--defined as the end of all brain activity, including the brain stem. Two separate courts ruled that Theresa was legally alive and her organs could not be removed. That ended the issue for Theresa--and she was allowed to die naturally. But the debate is still raging. Theresa's parents argue that a special definition of death ought to be applied to babies like Theresa so they can be declared legally dead. The Florida Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments on the case this fall. Some Florida legislators are talking about changing the law defining legal death in cases like this. What I see looming here is the old slippery slope of eugenics. Theresa's parents and attorneys are saying, in essence, "let's just label these kids dead so we can take their organs." The next thing you'll hear is "let's just label people who are in long comas dead." Then, "let's label people who are severely retarded dead." There's no logical place to stop. Slippery slopes like this aren't just theoretical. They really happen. A few years ago, the Loma Linda Medical Center ran an experiment to see if babies like Theresa could be used routinely as organ donors. But as word got out, doctors around the country started calling to say, I don't have a baby without a brain but I do have one with a brain injury. Can I send him over? Others said, I have a baby with spina bifida. Still others said, I have a baby who's mentally retarded. Can I send him over? The Medical Center had to shut down the experiment. The old saying is true: Hard cases make bad law. Law must be based on principle. There will always be hard cases, but once we bend the principle, others will come along and bend it further--and further. The principle in this case is that no matter how weak or deformed or sick people are, they are all precious in God's eyes. Our job is to love and care for them as much as we can in the time God has given them. Even when, like Baby Theresa, that means only a few days.


Chuck Colson


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