Feb 7, 2013

Francis Schaeffer and the death of Baby Doe

Francis Schaeffer's 1982 message to the Presbyterians at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was pretty simple: the philosophy of modern society is humanism, and humanism means death.

The speech was part of Schaeffer's book tour for A Christian Manifesto, which had been published the year before. That book and tour, along with 1976's book and film series How Shall We Then Live? and 1979's book and film Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, all made a sustained argument about the need for Christian activism. The pro-life movement, as such, can be traced to these arguments; the religious right as a "bloc" and a single, mobilized, political entity, was formed in part by these efforts. Schaeffer made the historical and philosophical case that undergirded the emerging movement.

The argument was about attitudes towards life and death.

Attitudes exemplified by the issue of infanticide.

The case Schaeffer made to the Presbyterians hinged on claims about infanticide, its prevalence and its popular acceptability. His philosophical critique of modern America and his proscriptive solution of Christian action both depended on the accuracy of his cultural analysis. Both were dependent on the question of whether or not Schaeffer was right about the way the world was at that moment. For that reason alone, it's worth inquiring into the question of infants killed by doctors in 1982.

The answer to the question of whether or not Schaeffer was right about infanticide in 1982 will go some ways towards answering the questions of whether or not he was right about the modern world, and right or not about humanism.

Schaeffer's abstract, philosophical critique was a critique of humanism. This is constant throughout his work, and was essential to the point he was making in February 1982.

Schaeffer told the people at Coral Ridge:
What we are facing is Humanism: Man, the measure of all things -- viewing final reality being only material or energy shaped by chance -- therefore, human life having no intrinsic value -- therefore, the keeping of any individual life or any groups of human life, being purely an arbitrary choice by society at the given moment.
This is not an obvious argument. Humanism, as articulated in the two Humanist Manifestoes, explicitly and adamantly affirms the value of human life. The first Humanist Manifesto, written in 1933, concludes with the claim that humanism will "affirm life rather than deny it." The second Humanist Manifesto, written in '73, states that "the preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value." Schaeffer is claiming that the humanists are wrong about what humanists believe. Or, more precisely, that they misunderstand the logical consequences of consistently holding to their humanist epistemology and ontology. They don't see the contradiction between denying God and excluding revelation and the supernatural from conversations about public policies, on the one hand, and upholding the value of human life on the other. For Schaeffer, the humanists may say that human life has value but they can't say it is intrinsically valuable, and that makes all the difference.

This is not just an abstract claim, though. Schaeffer was making an argument about what was actually happening in American at that moment. He claimed that this social development was visible: Humanism has taken over and has wrought death.

As evidence of this, he offered the current practice of doctors and nurses committing infanticide. Those who looked, he said, would see how humanism, in practice, meant the devaluation of human life:
Believe me, it's everywhere. It isn't just abortion. It's infanticide. It's allowing the babies to starve to death after they are born. If they do not come up to some doctor's concept of a quality of life worth living. I'll just say in passing -- and never forget it -- it takes about 15 days, often, for these babies to starve to death....
So what we find then, is that the medical profession has largely changed -- not all doctors. I'm sure there are doctors here in the audience who feel very, very differently, who feel indeed that human life is important and you wouldn't take it, easily, wantonly. But, in general, we must say (and all you have to do is look at the TV programs), all you have to do is hear about the increased talk about allowing the Mongoloid child -- the child with Down's Syndrome -- to starve to death if it's born this way. Increasingly, we find on every side the medical profession has changed its views. The view now is, "Is this life worth saving?"
This is not a philosophical claim. It's a claim, rather, about what was actually happening in 1982, and should be a matter of record, a claim that could be verified. Where arguments about what humanists "really" believe are not likely to go anywhere, it should be a simple enough matter to establish whether or not Schaeffer was right about what was happening in American hospitals in 1982. Note that he was not here making a slippery slope argument, saying that the legalization of abortion will at some future date end up meaning that infanticide is an accepted practice. That's common in pro-life rhetoric, and Schaeffer made that argument too, but that's not what Schaeffer was saying here. He was making the claim that there was a general practice in the medical profession -- i.e., an implementation of humanism -- such that certain sorts of infants were being starved to death.

Is this true?

Were newborns being regularly killed in American hospitals -- easily, wantonly, and so on?


There's one particularly famous case from that same year that would seem, on one level, to confirm what Schaeffer argued. An infant born with Down's syndrome was allowed to starve to death in a hospital in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1982, two months after Schaeffer's Florida speech. Some of the basic facts might seem to confirm his claims, but the details of that case show that Schaeffer was wrong -- importantly -- about the majority attitudes towards life and death in American hospitals. The full story of the Baby Doe case, as it's called, seriously undermine Schaeffer's argument.

Here's what happened: a child was born on Good Friday, April 1982. He was born with Down's syndrome and a disorder of the digestive system, esophageal atresia. This meant he could not eat.

There were three doctors in the case. Two recommended transporting the infant immediately to another hospital where emergency surgery could be preformed. The surgery had a 90 percent chance of success. The third -- the doctor who actually delivered the child -- said that there was another option that the parents had to consider.

They could let their child die.

The third doctor, Walter Owens, said the surgery would be painful, and possibly only the first of many, and the child would still have Down's. He suspected there were also other issues, such as brain damage. He said the child would be a "mere blob." They had a choice and they needed to know they had a choice that they had to make.

The family, which had had experiences with children with Down's, decided to let their child die. Owens told them they were being courageous, and said, "Here's how I look at it. If you let the baby die, you're going to grieve a little while. But if you go ahead with this surgery, you're going to grieve for the rest of your lives."

To this point, the story seems to align exactly with what Schaeffer predicted. Owens was a Unitarian-Universalist, incidentally, which would also fit Schaeffer's cultural analysis of the betrayal of Reformed Christian worldview and its consequences.

The story goes on, however. One of the doctors recommending the emergency surgery -- who happened to be named Schaffer -- fought for the infant's life. He appealed to the hospital authorities, and they brought in a judge on Saturday night to make a decision about this case. According to Jeff Lyons, who wrote the history of the Baby Doe case (1, 2, 3, 4), the judge was at home coloring Easter eggs with his children when the call came, and there was an emergency hearing at the hospital.

Lyons writes:
At issue was nothing less than whether parents ever have the right to refuse live-saving treatment for their children and whether a life of handicap is so abysmal as to warrant its termination at birth. 
Only rarely in American jurisprudence had such questions been raised. On the few occasions on which they had, the courts had almost invariably ruled against the parents and in favor of life. But in those instances the doctors had always been lined up against the parents. 
In Bloomington, however, it was a different matter. There existed a strong--one might say vehement--difference of clinical opinion as to what the best course of treatment was.
After hearing the evidence and the testimony of the conflicting doctors, as well as the arguments of the hospital's lawyers and a cleric, the judge took 30 minutes to deliberate. Then he ruled that it was not the court's place to make this decision: when a family is presented with two options by medical professionals, it is their right to make the choice about which course of action to take concerning a newborn infant. The family in this case had made their decision, and the child would die.

That wasn't the end of it, though.

The nurses revolted. A sign was taped to Baby Doe's crib saying "Do Not Feed." Possibly this was because of the problem with the infant's esophagus, but it was taken as a symbol of the parent's decision to starve their child. The head nurse saw the sign and responded: "Over my dead body." En masse, the nurses threatened to strike.

Francis Schaeffer, from a certain perspective, seems prescient here. At Coral Ridge, two months before, he had said that nurses would be asked to participate in the death of infants. He predicted there would be signs on cribs that said "Do Not Feed," and that nurses would be fired if they refused to follow those orders. The nurses in Bloomington did refuse, though, and they weren't fired. The hospital took their side. Instead of firing the nurses, the child was moved out of the nursery, taken to another floor, and the family was required to hire private nurses.

There was also immediate, fierce criticism of the judge, and so the decision was referred to the state's Child Protection Committee, with a guardian appointed to represent the interests of the child in that hearing. After 45 minutes of deliberation, Lyons reports, the committee returned with the same decision, affirming the rights of the parent's to make this medical decision.

Neither the court nor the committee, it's worth noting, never made any sort of decision about the value of the infant's life, or about the ways in which, perhaps, quality of life could be measured against life itself. Rather, they considered and made a ruling about who has the right to the final decision about how to respond to an infant's serious medical condition when doctors disagree. They decided, very conservatively, that the state does not have the power, nor does the hospital. The rights are the parents', in consultation with their physicians.

There was another legal challenge the next day, when the county prosecutor tried to have the child declared neglected, giving the state the authority to overrule the parent's decision. That failed, and there were then a series of other efforts: a local attorney acting on behalf of the county prosecutor applied for a temporary restraining order agains the parents; a lawyer for the National Right to Life Association filed a petition on behalf of a couple that wanted to adopt Baby Doe; an appeal was made to the Indiana Supreme Court; plans were made to appeal to the Supreme Court.

All of these failed. Mostly for legal and technical reasons.

The parents, meanwhile, named the child Walter after Owens, the doctor who'd recommended they let him die. They had the infant baptized into the Catholic Church by their parish priest. They asked their nurses when the ordeal would be over.

Others continued to fight for the infant's life, nevertheless. Protestors gathered outside the hospital with signs. The doctor who strongly recommended the emergency surgery, Schaffer, tried to break into Baby Doe's room to administer an IV, to feed the dying child. Lyon's calls it "one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of American medicine, an episode that saw one doctor guard a dying baby from another doctor who was threatening to try and save its life." The rescue mission only stopped because it was too late. The doctor said he knew that feeding the dying infant intravenously could cost him his medical license or even result in criminal charges of kidnapping. But he didn't care. It was too late, though.

At six days old, denied medical treatment and denied food, Baby Doe died.

There don't seem to be any reliable figures to indicate how many similar cases occurred in the United States in 1982. It's just not known if, as Schaeffer said, such practices were "everywhere." The fact that this case received such attention, though, and evoked such a strong response, suggests that letting Down's children or otherwise handicapped children die was not common or commonly accepted. A similar case in 1983 received similar attention, and similarly garnered outrage from the public, the medical community and legal community, indicating that while there were some doctors doing this sort of thing, they faced overwhelming resistance.

Schaeffer's description of the culture, where "the medical profession has largely changed," is simply factually wrong.

But what should be made of this? It seems significant that he was wrong. Schaeffer's cultural analysis and his philosophical analysis in this 1982 speech depended very much on the truth of the claim that infanticide was happening, and happening without any resistance. The entire argument that he made in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., can be summed up with these two arguments that both rest on this purported fact of infanticide: modern society is humanist, humanism results in the devaluation of life, and thus the modern world is now a place where infants with Down's are being nonchalantly killed.

But they weren't, though. Not nonchalantly.

According to reports, even in such liberal quarters as the Washington Post, Baby Doe's death was considered a tragedy. The American Academy of Pediatrics expressed "open concern that Baby Does' obstetric physician had made a mistake, that poor advice was given to the family and that such an event should be avoided." An article published in the Western Journal of Medicine said the doctor made a "serious judgement error," because of his own prejudice and bias. The next year, in response to the public outcry, every hospital that received federal funding was required to prominently post signs announcing "discriminatory failure to feed and care for handicapped infants ... is prohibited by federal law." Several laws were passed, following the case. Reflecting on the case 20 years later, the judge who'd been called to the Bloomington hospital on Easter eve noted that "if this situation had happened in present-day courts, there would be no doubt all action would have been taken to save the baby's life because of new state and federal laws that prohibit such acts."

If Walter Owens received any support in this case, for his opinion that the child should be allowed to die, it wasn't very vocal. Even those who opposed the Baby Doe regulations went out of their way to make it clear that they thought the doctor made a horrible decision.

All of this points to the fact that Schaeffer was wrong. The reaction to the Baby Doe case shows that the America of 1982 was not the kind of place that Francis Schaeffer thought it was. While there may have been a few who, in specific cases, asked the question, "Is this life worth saving?," that was clearly not happening "on every side." When you look at what actually was the case, what you find is the opposite of what Schaeffer said would be found. People overwhelmingly wanted to keep this infant alive, and valued his life enough to try to get the government to take away the parents' legal rights.

Schaeffer's message, to Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and in those tours in 1976, '79 and '82, was about the dangers of humanism, and how Christians should wake up because humanism had taken over their world, reshaped their country, and put the lives of America's most vulnerable in jeopardy. In this specific instance, he made very concrete claims about how that was happening, but it's clear he was wrong.

Schaeffer's cultural analysis was mistaken.

The only possible conclusions, it seems, is that either he was wrong about humanism having taken over America, or, alternatively, it's just not the case that humanism devalues human life in the way Schaeffer said it did.


  1. I hear some of what you are saying. I would say that the reason we don't have infanticide practised in our country is because of our prevalent Judaeo/Christian ethic not humanism. It was the outcry over the case in Indiana that prevented this type of thing to be the norm. Where did the outcry come from? My guess - folks who strongly believe in the Judaeo/Christian ethic. Go to Asia if you want to see abortion and at work in a non-Christian setting. Unborn baby girls are killed with the end result being whole villages without females in the next generation. This fuels the slave trade. Did Francis Shaefer exagerat a little to make his point? I'm sure he did just like any one else who speaks in a public forum. Were his conclusions correct? ABSOLUTELY!

  2. Schaeffer's claim -- very specifically -- was that there was no longer a "prevalent Judeo-Christian ethic" in America. That is the basis for his argument, and he obviously thought that it mattered whether or not it was true.

  3. Anonymous7:03 PM

    Schaeffer was joined by Koop in their '79 book. Their claim was that infantacide was a growing practice, just not on the record. So I can't see your argument about concrete facts in '82, since they didn't appeal to actual records - Baby Doe slipped through into the mediasphere. This in turn energized a base of people who were horrified of the case. Laws were passed and standards established to keep infanticide out. Since Schaeffer is not merely analyzing the problem, but living truly existentially (as he might say), he inspired a great number of people to affect the final outcome of pulling back from (public) infanticide. Here is a fact though - 90% of unborn children diagnosed with Downs are aborted in the most recent studies. Our culture definately does not value all human life. I think FS analysis largely holds up. Incidently, my own Downs daughter turned 21 on the day this article was written. She's an absolute joy to all who know her. Those who pay attention to her can learn alot about serenity and love. We are less humane as a society without the presence our brothers and sisters, the other 90%.

  4. A very happy birthday to your daughter.

    1. Anonymous5:59 PM

      Thanks Dan, she danced all day!

  5. Anonymous3:49 PM

    About a decade after Doe, partial birth abortions begun to happen in greater frequency. We now have a president in office who voted against a bill in IL that would protect the life of a baby whose abortion was botched. Voluntary euthanasia evenutally is giving way to involuntary euthanasia. Schaeffer was exactly right about humanism - it just takes time to play out to its logical conclusion. While he may have been wrong about the overall climate of America at the time, the fact that such an act was even thinkable by the number of individuals at all does give credence to a loss of the Judeo-Christian heritage. I think today a baby Doe scenario would be more easily, though not universally, accepted.

  6. If defending Schaeffer requires one argue that statements of fact and the facts of history don't matter, I'm not sure what the point is in defending Schaeffer.

    It's possible he was right about everything else and wrong about this. That doesn't make it irrelevant that he was wrong about this.

    1. Anonymous7:58 PM

      What I'm saying is that it being wrong about this doesn't affect his overall case. Take the case of a book. Very few, if any, books are completely error free or make no questionable claims. That doesn't ruin their overall thesis or mean we shouldn't listen to what they are saying.

      Is it relevant? Well, I would compare this to two recent burstings of financial bubbles in the U.S., the late 90s tech bubble and the 2005-08 housing bubble. People were predicting that both bubbles would collapse for a few years before they actually did, and endured a little mockery when they seemed not to pan out, with people saying "Things are different now." But they were just wrong about the timing, not about the consequences. Now, it's not relevant that some people thought the dot com stocks would collapse in 1999, rather than 2000 when they actually did. The world that they mistakenly thought had arrived has arrived now, and that's the one we have to deal with.

  7. "The only possible conclusions, it seems, is that either he was wrong about humanism having taken over America, or, alternatively, it's just not the case that humanism devalues human life in the way Schaeffer said it did."

    Actually, there is another possible conclusion: according to the Reformed Christian doctrine of common grace, God's Spirit works within fallen human consciences to restrain evil, even when those sinners hold to beliefs that, if taken to their logical conclusions, would lead to terrible offenses.

    1. An excellent point, which opens up an interesting critique of Schaeffer, I think.

  8. What eactly do you mean by "humanism" in this context? I ask, because us lefties use the term in a much different manner.




    (Humanism is actually anti-marxist; "marxist humanists" are revisionists.)