What About Baby Doe?
Being anti-abortion doesn’t make us pro-life
by Michael J. Hoggatt
Abortion continues to be a polarizing issue in American politics. Central to the Christian argument against abortion is the position that life begins at conception, and the anti-abortion movement relies heavily on this premise in its advocacy efforts. Once people realize that an unborn baby is alive, the strategists believe, they will quickly forsake their pro-choice ideals and join the anti-abortion ranks. But this is simply not so. Contrary to what many evangelicals think, there are many pro-choice advocates who believe that an unborn child is a living person. At issue is not whether an unborn baby is alive but whether it has equal value and equal rights in comparison to a pregnant mother or other individual and to what degree “choice” should be valued in opposition to an unborn life.
Three decades ago a case was brought before the American people that had nothing to do with when life began, yet it was seen as a pivotal moment in the pro-life/pro-choice struggle. Bloomington, Ind., was the setting for a widening in the public’s understanding of Roe v. Wade as the parents of a young boy born with Down syndrome were allowed to slowly starve their infant to death. The plight of Baby Doe was discussed and debated on the floor of Congress, in national newspapers, and from pulpits across America. Despite the outcry from the public and the church, the decision by Baby Doe’s parents to allow their son to die was, ultimately, upheld by the courts.
In addition to Down syndrome, Baby Doe had been diagnosed with esophageal atresia, resulting in a blockage in Baby Doe’s esophagus that prevented food from entering the child’s system through traditional means. This medical problem could have been corrected through surgical repair or replacement of the esophagus or by a gastronomy tube that would have allowed nourishment to bypass the esophagus and be delivered straight into Baby Doe’s stomach.(1)
The parents’ decision to refrain from treatment and ultimately to allow their child to starve to death was not based on the esophageal atresia, but rather on the diagnosis of Down syndrome. According to the parents, the decision to withhold treatment was made after consideration of the potential struggles implied by a diagnosis of Down syndrome. The parents believed their child would be relegated to the margins of society with little hope for happiness or opportunity for success. “Medical experts” who testified at subsequent congressional hearings made statements indicating that Baby Doe would have a “nonexistent” possibility for a “minimally adequate quality of life,” which reinforced the parents’ point of view. To their thinking, Baby Doe’s parents were justified in deciding that their child was better off dead than having to face the potential challenges faced by persons with disabilities. On April 16, 1982, Baby Doe died from starvation.(2)
The Baby Doe case makes it very clear that the question was never “Is Baby Doe a living person?” but rather “What is the value of life?”
The Baby Doe case makes it very clear that the question was never “Is Baby Doe a living person?” but rather “What is the value of life?” Baby Doe’s parents believed their son was destined for a life in which he would be a burden to society and have little hope for happiness. In essence, their decision was based on a belief that their child would remain an unwanted outcast for the duration of his life. Contrary to what many would have us believe, the Baby Doe case was decided solely on the issue of value and the manner that human worth is determined in society. Thrity-some years after the Baby Doe case, most Christian groups unfortunately fail to grasp this central idea.
Despite the Reagan administration’s inability to halt the Indiana court decision, the president was moved to respond to it in an article he wrote for the Human Life Review in spring 1983. Reagan’s words strike at the heart of the issue of human value and bear repeating here:
Abortion concerns not just the unborn child; it concerns every one of us. The English poet John Donne wrote: “…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind”… We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life—the unborn—without diminishing the value of all human life. We saw tragic proof of this truism last year when the Indiana courts allowed the starvation death of “Baby Doe” in Bloomington because the child had Down syndrome. I know that when the true issue of infanticide is placed before the American people, with all the facts openly aired, we will have no trouble deciding that a mentally or physically handicapped baby has the same intrinsic worth and right to life as the rest of us.(3)
Reagan was wrong in one assumption. The true issue of abortion has been placed before the American church, and yet it still has trouble deciding whether a person with mental or physical disabilities has the same intrinsic worth as other members of society.
What does it mean to be pro-life?
Even though there were many sermons at the time that decried the parents’ decision to keep Baby Doe from participating in a shared humanity, Baby Doe, had he been allowed to live, would even today have a hard time finding a church that made any real effort to value him as a full member of the congregation. Despite the rhetoric about the image of God and the sanctity of human life, churches are actually far less welcoming to the disabled and far less knowledgeable about their disabilities than is the local public school. American Christians regularly lament the humanistic principles taught within the public school system and further argue that the philosophy of relativism taught within them undermines human worth and value as defined by a creator God. However, the public school system—and not the Christian community—has created a means to address the individual needs of students labeled with disabilities, a means to help include all individuals to the fullest extent possible within the daily activities of the school, and a means to allow them to make a meaningful contribution.
The National Organization on Disabilities has found that participation in worship services is 22 percent lower among people with disabilities than among those without. This is striking when one considers the number of individuals across the United States with disabilities. Over 20 percent of Americans live with some form of disability, and nearly one in 10 individuals carries a label of “severely disabled.”(4) These numbers alone should prompt the American church to reach out to these individuals as a response to the image of our Creator. However, only one in 10 American churches has any intentional ministry or program designed to reach individuals with disabilities.(5)
Why does such a disparity exist between the pro-life position espoused by Christians and the alarming lack of inclusion and services offered to disabled individuals by the church? In blunter terms, why do most churches still fail to make room for the Baby Doe who has not been exterminated? The simple explanation is that the majority of the American evangelical movement has more to do with being anti-abortion than being pro-life.
The majority of the American evangelical movement has more to do with being anti-abortion than being pro-life.
Despite laudable efforts by many Christian organizations, the church continues to miss opportunities to demonstrate the love of God to the very people the world uses as a defense of abortion. Studies indicate that anywhere from 50-90 percent of children with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome are victims of abortion.(6) This tragedy is based on the same premise that colored the Baby Doe decision: that a child born with Down syndrome (or any disability) is doomed to a life of marginalization and ostracism based on a perceived lack of value to society. This belief continues to be reinforced by the church’s inability to promote disability ministries and inclusion programs in local congregations. The church, the great Bride of Christ—not the public schools, federal legislation, or any other medium—is best equipped to speak to the value inherent within each person. We as Christians are uniquely gifted to respond to the image of God or to welcome the world that “God so loved,” yet we repeatedly fail to do so.
I asked a pastor friend of mine whether or not persons with disabilities were included in his 1,500-member congregation. His answer goes to the heart of the problem. He told me that Bobby, a 30-something man with Down syndrome, the son of respected members, sang in the choir and was treated “just like a regular member.” The fact that this pastor could only point to one cognitively or physically challenged person in a congregation that demographically should have had approximately 150 was only part of the problem. The core problem was revealed in the pastor’s use of the word “like.” Contrary to popular belief, the word “like” does not mean “sameness.” For one thing to be like another thing, that thing must first be, by definition, in some way different, while sharing qualities or attributes. So when my friend says that Bobby is treated “like” a regular member of the choir, what he means is that Bobby is in fact recognized as something other than a “regular” choir member—but included anyway. In more colloquial terms, we think he’s so sweet that we let him pretend to be a regular member. Also implied in that statement is that the church is doing this poor soul a favor by treating him as if he were equal to the rest of the members. No one questions whether Bobby is alive or has a soul; the implication is that Bobby does not have the same worth or value as the rest of the choir, and therefore it is an act of Christian charity to treat him “just like a regular member.”
The implication is that Bobby does not have the same worth or value as the rest of the choir, and therefore it is an act of Christian charity to treat him “just like a regular member.”
Another pastor informed me recently that his church, which has a multimillion-dollar budget and dozens of paid staff, could not afford to invest money to reach out to or minister to disabled people. When asked why that was the case, he informed me that “all ministries need to be able to financially support themselves.” In other words, the “value” of a ministry or the individuals who are ministered to is determined on a financial basis. The inability of countless churches and Christians across America to recognize and respond to “value” in a heavenly fashion is the central reason, in my opinion, why the American Christian community will never win the war against abortion in this country.
The question before the church today is whether or not all life has equal value before God and the inherent protections and advocacy related to this worth. The world will say that value is earned through contributions to society or by success or fame. The world will argue that the value of an unborn life does not outweigh the value of a mother’s choice. Unfortunately, despite its pro-life rhetoric, the church has increasingly bought into the world’s values.
These values find their most ardent support embodied within Planned Parenthood, America’s leading abortion provider. Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, clearly indicated the purpose of such an organization when she wrote out the goals of the American Birth Control League, which eventually merged with the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau to form Planned Parenthood. One such goal was “sterilization of the insane and feeble-minded and the encouragement of this operation upon those afflicted with inherited or transmissible diseases.”(7) Planned Parenthood was born at the height of the American eugenics movement and placed before the American people a false appraisal of human value.(8) How different is Sanger’s or Planned Parenthood’s belief in a social Darwinian worldview than the system the church employs when segregating its congregation by ability (or perceived ability) or by race?
This social Darwinian worldview has resurfaced in the last 100 years in a variety of forms and fashions—in Nazi Germany, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, 1994’s massacres in Rwanda, and in Darfur. It has found a home within the genetic engineering debates promoting the use of embryonic stem cells, and in euthanasia proponents who advocate for physician-assisted suicide and the “right to die.” However, its greatest “success” has been in the countless millions of unborn babies that have been killed through legalized abortion as a result of unquestioning acceptance of this worldview by the American people.
Buying into the world’s values
Every time we fail to stand up for people—all people—as valued creations of God, we support the ideological structures that undergird everything from abortion to genocide, and we give consent to these actions. When a pastor argues that people with disabilities are not going to get equal services in his church because they can’t compete financially with the recipients of other ministries, the church is abiding by the world’s value system. When Christian recording artists are told to lose 10 pounds before they’ll be signed to a Christian label, the church is living by the world’s value system. When nine out of 10 churches fail to provide disability services, despite the fact that up to 19 percent of the populace is personally affected by disability, the church is living by the world’s value system. When one out of three born-again Christians views abortion as a morally acceptable act, the church is living according to the world’s value system. When Christian authors/pastors appear to echo Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” philosophy and equate prosperity with financial value, the church is living by the world’s value system. The church must become aware of the truth that it “cannot diminish the value of one category of human life … without diminishing the value of all human life,” and the church must promote activities and ministries consistent with this truth.
As long as the church continues to measure human value with a worldly yardstick, we will continue to lose ground in the battle for human life.
When I look at myself through the eyes of God’s value system, I realize that I have nothing to offer Christ that will endear me to him. We come before Christ “without one plea, but that [his] blood was shed for us.” This places me on equal footing with the poor and the rich, the illiterate and the educated, the disabled and the able—with every other person on earth. God’s grace grants me value. I have nothing to recommend me save grace of a loving God. When I recognize this truth, I am able to respond to my brothers and sisters and recognize that their value is based on the fact that a creator-God shed blood for them in the same quantity and fashion that he shed blood for me. As long as the church continues to measure human value with a worldly yardstick, we will never be able to adequately address the needs of those who are desperate to feel worth, and we will continue to lose ground in the battle for human life. We must ultimately, and to our great shame, concede to the parents of Baby Doe that they were right in their decision. We must acknowledge that there is no room for their son in our sanctuary, because the church
has made a value appraisal and found him to be lacking.
When I was a child and was careless with a new piece of clothing or a toy that my parents bought, my father would say, “Do you know how much that cost? You should have a little more respect for these things.” When I see how the church responds to persons with disabilities, I often wonder if Christ shakes his head at us and says, “Do you realize what I paid for him? You should have more respect,” or “Be more careful with her; she cost more than you realize.” If the church is ever going to make inroads regarding attitudes toward abortion, it must first spend time valuing life and demonstrating that all life is valuable. The church cannot ride the fence on this issue. If the church is pro-life it must be completely pro-life. The church must reach out across the years to Baby Doe and others and let them know that there is indeed room in their congregation. As Christians we cannot preach pro-life and live any other way.
Michael Hoggatt holds a master’s degree in special education and public administration. He currently works with individuals with disabilities within the church and within the public sector.
A Weak Body by Sarah Kidd, about disabilities and the church
A Church for Troubled Minds by Amy Simpson, about mental illness and the church
1. Schneck, H. “Life, Death and the Rights of Handicapped Babies.” New York Times, June 18, 1985.
2. Devine, R. Good Care, Painful Choices: Medical Ethics for Ordinary People, 3rd. ed. (Paulist Press, 2004).
3. Reagan, R. “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation.” The Human Life Review, spring, 1983, available here.
4. U.S. Census, 2000. Retrieved on November 20, 2006 from CenStats.gov.
5. Hutchinson, C. “How to Begin a Disability Ministry.” Speech delivered at Joni and Friends Disability Ministry Summit, Pasadena, Calif., on October 10, 2006.
6. Natoli J.L.; Ackerman D.L.; McDermott S.; and Edwards J.G. “Prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome: a systematic review of termination rates (1995-2011),” Prenat Diagn. 2012 Feb; 32(2):142-53.
7. Sanger, M. Pivot of Civilization, 1922, quoted in Black, E. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (Thunder Mouth Press, 2004).
8. Black, E. War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003).