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April 07, 2005

Remembering Baby Doe: Terri Schiavo wasn't the first

Guest-blogging over at The Dawn Patrol, Ron Siwoff reminds us that Terri Schiavo isn't the first case of the judicially-decreed starvation of the disabled:

In 1982, two years before the year imagined in Orwell's prophecy, Washington Post columnist George Will discussed a case in which the Indiana Supreme court upheld the starvation of a child born with Down syndrome. The court ruled that the parents had the right to refuse a lifesaving operation, which would have allowed food to enter the baby's stomach by repairing a malformed esophagus. The Indiana Supreme Court's decision to allow this child to be starved to death went quietly unnoticed, as did a subsequent case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. That court ruled in a similar fashion for another child, who was born with spina bifida, an incomplete closure of the spinal column. The court decided that the child's parents could elect to refuse surgery to save the child's life. Following spina bifida surgery, many children go on to live quality lives, despite partial paralysis.

So we see that Terri Schindler Schiavo was not the first victim to receive a death sentence because a judge felt that her life had no value.

The Indiana case was noticed by Steve Taylor, an iconoclastic contemporary Christian artist, who wrote and performed a song called "Baby Doe" on his 1984 album, "Meltdown." The lyrics seem to come from last week's headlines:

A hearing is sought
The lawyers are bought
The court won't let him eat
The papers applaud
When judges play God
This child is getting weak....

It's over and done
The presses have run
Some call the parents brave
Behind your disguise
Your rhetoric lies
You watched a baby starve

Ultimately, the responsibility for allowing this to happen falls on all of us, a point Taylor made in the song's chorus:

I bear the blame
Believers are few
And what am I to do?
I share the shame
The cradle's below
And where is Baby Doe?

In the liner notes for a 1994 compilation album ("Now the Truth Can Be Told"), Taylor explains why the finger of blame points back at himself:

Steve says, "I must credit both the Christian philosopher Francis Shaeffer and Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff for their influence and inspiration in helping me to develop a foundational belief in the sanctity of human life. Ten years after the events described in this song occurred, the alarm they and others sounded rings prophetically true. But it continues to be drowned out by the rhetoric of 'freedom of choice' and 'quality of life'. A baby was born in Bloomington, Indiana, with Down's Syndrome, and despite numerous outside pleas for adoption, the parents, doctors, and ultimately the courts agreed to allow Baby Doe to starve to death, right there in the hospital. I began writing this song with the sense of outrage that fingers those responsible and demands justice. But the more I thought about what had happened, the more I realized that I shared in the blame -- that my silence had helped clear the way for Baby Does' suffering and death. Hearing this song again leaves me feeling empty and a little numb. In our democratic society, the battle for the sanctity of human life is being lost. And when that window closes, nothing will be sacred."

What happened to Terri Schiavo was done by an elected judge, with the cooperation of an elected sheriff, enforcing laws passed unanimously by an elected legislature and signed by an elected governor. Preventing similar tragedies in the future will require our diligence as voters to elect people who respect the sanctity of human life -- at all levels of government, even city councils and school boards. It will require that we understand the laws as they are today and then work with legislators to build in safeguards against the kind of judicial tyranny we saw at work in Pinellas County, Florida. Most of all, to the point that Ron makes in his essay, we need congressmen and a president willing to stand up to judicial tyranny.

You'll find an MP3 of "Baby Doe" here. iTunes has all of Steve Taylor's first four albums available for download.

UPDATE: Tim Bayly wrote last summer about President Reagan's reaction when he learned about Baby Doe.

Posted by Michael at April 7, 2005 12:04 AM
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