Turning a Blind Eye?

This is the second entry in a series. Please be sure to read the introductory post before you read this one, in order to understand the context.

In the first entry in this series, we considered the 1917 silent movie The Black Stork.

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It featured a melodramatic story in which a doctor allows a newborn baby, born with congenital defects, to die by refusing to operate to save its life.

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The infant’s mother was at first torn by the desire to see her child live, but a frightening dream, showing a glimpse of how the child’s defects would lead to a tormented future, persuades her to affirm the doctor’s plan to just stand back and let the infant die without any care.

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The film was not just a “neutral” telling of a tragic story, but was full of persuasive rhetoric in favor of this type of medical choice. The reason for this is that it was not really a drama written as “entertainment,” but instead was a piece of propaganda. It was a thinly disguised fictional account of an actual circumstance in the real world. The doctor in the film was not an actor, but a real doctor named Harry Haiselden. And just months before the movie was filmed, Haiselden had presided over a case very similar to that in the movie.

At 4am on November 12 1915, a woman named Anna Bollinger gave birth at the German-American Hospital in Chicago. The baby was somewhat deformed and suffered from extreme intestinal and rectal abnormalities, as well as other complications. The delivering physicians awakened Dr Harry Haiselden, the hospital’s chief of staff. Haiselden came in at once. He consulted with colleagues. There was great disagreement over whether the child could be saved. But Haiselden decided the baby was too afflicted and fundamentally not worth saving. It would be killed. The method: denial of treatment. [Source]

But rather than this being just a quiet decision between physician and parent, Haiselden went a BIG step further. He notified newspaper reporters of his plan, invited them to interview him and the mother, and prepared to create a firestorm of public opinion.

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Catherine Walsh, probably a friend of Bollinger’s, heard the news and sped to the hospital to help. She found the baby…alone in a bare room. Walsh pleaded with Haiselden not to kill the baby by withholding treatment. “It was not a monster – that child,” Walsh later told an inquest. “It was a beautiful baby. I saw no deformities.” Walsh had patted the infant lightly. [His] eyes were open, and he waved his tiny fists at her. Begging the doctor once more, Walsh tried an appeal to his humanity. “If the poor little darling has one chance in a thousand,” she pleaded, “won’t you operate to save it?”

Haiselden laughed at Walsh, retorting, “I’m afraid it might get well.”  [ibid]

The story became a national sensation. It took five days for the baby to die.

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During the death-watch period and for long after the baby passed on, Haiselden was busy promoting himself and his opinions on euthanasia of “defective” infants in the press and in public speeches.  And the public—celebrities, the “man on the street,” experts in various fields, and medical professionals—weighed in with their opinions in letters to the editors. I can only imagine what it would have been like if Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the Internet in general would have been available back then! Much of the ranting in letters to the editor still on record from that time period sounds exactly like the “comments” sections below Youtube videos and Facebook posts today.

From the way many of my friends (and others whose material I read) on the Internet talk about the “Good Old Days,” I’m pretty sure they would expect that there would have been a one-sided firestorm at Haiselden’s actions back in 1915. Surely almost everyone but a few nonconformist radicals would have roundly condemned Haiselden and put a stop to the evil craziness of infanticide. For after all, once he got started ranting, Haiselden admitted he’d been doing the same thing for at least a decade, playing The Grim Reaper for numerous infants. And that he fully intended to continue doing so. Surely society, once alerted to this situation, would rise up in indignation and put a stop to it, probably sending him to prison for his deeds. For America the Beautiful back then was still, oh, fifty  years or so from the slide down into lack of respect for the Right to Life that was brought on by the change in morality of the 1960s and 70s.

Well, actually, that’s not how the reality played out. First of all, Haiselden claimed that he was no Lone Ranger in his actions. He insisted that at least once a day, somewhere in the Chicago area, a physician refused care to a defective baby, essentially “assisting” in its death. And I’m sure he didn’t think Chicago was unique in this fact of medical culture of the time…the implication was that it went on all over the country. What Haiselden DID claim was that yes, he was deliberately shoving the nose of society into this reality in order to “prime the pump” of a national discussion of the topic.

For he was convinced that the average American was actually privately in favor of dealing with the “problem of defectives” with solutions like he was using…or could be persuaded to be in favor by rational discussion.

And the public press was more than willing to facilitate such a rational/national discussion. Haiselden won endorsements for his actions and proclamations by papers across the country, such as the Chicago Herald Tribune and America; Detroit News and Free Press; Baltimore American; Philadelphia Ledger; New York American; Washington Herald; and the New Republic. But other papers condemned him.

And the public wrote openly about their opinions:

“As a Christian and a Socialist, I hope the day of the parasite who eats his bread without earning it will soon pass whether he be mentally or physically incompetent or not.”Dr. J. C. Howell

“If the child would be a helpless idiot, what purpose is served by keeping it alive?” Kathleen Davis.

“ Shortsighted are they who would unduly restrict the operation of what is one of Nature’s greatest racial blessings—death.”  Charles Davenport, Carnegie Station for Experimental Evolution and the Eugenics Records Office

Then there was famous lawyer Clarence Darrow’s no-punches-pulled comment:

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In the November 18, 1915 edition of the Washington Post, Darrow, who was identified as a “lawyer and humanitarian” took the anti-humanitarian position: “Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.”  [Source]

Of course, there were many who wrote passionately against Haiselden’s position, although some records from the time indicate that they were not necessarily in the majority.

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Jane Addams, a prominent social activist and founder of the Settlement House movement in Chicago, argued in the Washington Post (November 18, 1915) that many “defectives” made important contributions to society in the past, and she criticized Haiselden. One of these famous contributors who was cited by Addams in her article was Helen Keller. [ibid]

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Helen Keller was 35 at the time. She had published her popular autobiography in 1903, and had become a major celebrity in American life, known to all for overcoming her disabilities. Blinded and made deaf by disease before the age of two, she had pushed past those incredible obstacles to graduate from college and become a noted writer and speaker. Yes, as a young child (before Annie Sullivan taught her to communicate), often exhibiting uncontrolled fits of rage, she would surely have been looked at by many if not most people as a helpless defective, doomed to a life of isolation from others.

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Addams no doubt thought surely Helen, of all people, would understand the error of condemning “defective infants.” So imagine the shock to Helen’s admirers and supporters…such as Addams…when she came down squarely in support of Haiselden!

… [A letter from Keller] titled “Physicians’ juries for defective babies” was published in The New Republic on December, 18, 1915. … She concluded that “It is the possibility of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature.” Keller went on to describe the actions of Haiselden as a “weeding of the human garden that shows a sincere love of true life.” [ibid]

Now mind you, the Bollinger baby was only a day old when Haiselden decided unilaterally that it would grow up to be mentally retarded and worthless to humanity. Not all of his colleagues agreed with him in that diagnosis. But he claimed to be a scientific and medical expert at deciding such things. Yes, a scientific and medical expert who had the following to say in the matter of the “cause” of the deformities of another baby he allowed to die in July 1917:

“Incidentally it is interesting to know the baby’s condition may be the result of a fright suffered by the mother before the child was born.  Half a year before the little one came into the world the mother witnessed a frightful accident in which a man was mutilated. But this is incidental. It will interest those physicians who have held this sort of thing impossible.”

In other words, yes, Haiselden gave credence to the theory…nay, Old Wives’ Tale…that birth defects could be caused by the pregnant woman seeing something like the later defect that would show up in her newborn. This particular baby was born with a head deformity, and the mother had been traumatized during her pregnancy by viewing the aftermath of an accident in which a man was killed in a fall which split his head open.

But back to Keller:

Keller then proposed a solution to the dilemma of deciding who was to live and who was to die. She felt that an analogy to the criminal justice system was appropriate, because, as opposed to an ordinary criminal defendant who may go on to be a “useful and productive member of society,” the “mental defective, on the other hand, is almost sure to be a potential criminal.”

As one of my good friends used to say when hearing something this outlandish, “Oh, REALLY??”

Keller proposed a jury of physicians to decide whether an infant would live or die because “[t]heir findings would be free from the prejudice and inaccuracy of untrained observation.”

So there you have it. Early 20th century “Death Panels.”

Keller added: “They [the physicians’ jury] would act only in cases of true idiocy, where there could be no hope of mental development.” Keller noted that physicians’ juries may be subject to abuse in that “[t]he powerful of the earth might use it to decide cases to suit themselves,” but that “if the evidence were presented openly and the decisions made public, there would be little danger of mistakes or abuses.

Again I say, “Oh, REALLY??”

 According to Keller, “Anyone interested in the case who did not believe the child ought to die might be permitted to provide for its care and maintenance.”

In conclusion, Keller wrote that “we must decide between a fine humanity like Dr Haiselden’s and a cowardly sentimentalism.”  [Source]

The debate that Haiselden started raged in the public press for over a year. Haiselden himself was investigated several times, but was acquitted of any legal guilt for his actions. The Chicago Medical Society expelled him from their membership…but not for killing babies (or “allowing them to die.”) They took him to task instead just for the undue publicity that his newspaper articles, lectures on behalf of infant euthanasia, and movie brought to the medical profession! He did not lose his medical license, and continued to perform many operations…and let more babies die.

I do not share all this information about Harry Haiselden and his career to enter into debate or even discussion on the specific merits of how any given society “ought” to deal with those among them who have disabilities. That is another topic for another time. My specific purpose for this series is to disabuse readers in the 21st century of the notion that “We the People” of the US have somehow turned away from the morals and values of some “Golden Past” where such questions didn’t exist—because, supposedly, we have had, until recently, a national society solidly based on Christian Values.

I’ve never been quite sure which Christian Values, which allegedly Biblical Values, our society has been based on and lived by since 1789. My study of both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible has convinced me that at the very core of the Prime Directives from God is concern and care for the lame, the blind, the crippled, the “stranger” (non-native born), the poor in general, and the fatherless and widows in particular. In every era I have studied in our history (including the early 1900s) I see an ignoring—at  best—and a twisted, horrific distortion at worst, of that mandate from God.

In this instance, regarding the actions of Harry Haiselden, I’m not even focusing on just his decisions about withholding care from infants. Look at one of the reasons Haiselden gave for his decisions:

He justified his killings by claiming that public institutions for the feebleminded, epileptic and tubercular were functioning as lethal chambers [the equivalent of a death chamber] of a sort. After clandestinely visiting the Illinois Institution for the Feebleminded at Lincoln, Illinois, Haiselden claimed that windows were deliberately left open and unscreened, allowing drafts and infecting flies to swarm over patients. He charged that Lincoln consciously permitted “flies from the toilets, garbage and from the eruptions of patients suffering from acute and chronic troubles to go at will over the entire institution. Worse still,” he proclaimed, “I found that inmates were fed with the milk from a herd of cattle reeking with tuberculosis.”

At the time, milk from cattle with tuberculosis was a well-known cause of infection and death from the disease. Lincoln maintained its own herd of seventy-two cows, which produced about 50,000 gallons of milk a year for its own consumption. Ten diseased cows had died within the previous two years. State officials admitted that their own examinations had determined that as many as half of the cows were tubercular, but there was no way to know which ones were infected because “a tubercular cow may be the fattest cow in the herd.” Lincoln officials claimed that their normal pasteurization “by an experienced employee” killed the tuberculosis bacteria. They were silent on the continuous handling of the milk by infected residents.

Medical watchdogs had often speculated that institutions for the feeble-minded were really nothing more than slow-acting lethal chambers. But Haiselden never resorted to the term lethal chamber. He called such institutions “slaughterhouses.”

[Black, Edwin (2012-11-30). War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, Expanded Edition (Kindle Locations 5365-5378). Dialog Press. Kindle Edition.]

Again, I don’t wish to debate the issue of “which is worse” in a society…condoning euthanasia for newborns with “defects,” or condoning a “system” of dealing with the “defective” outcasts of society including infants by hiding them out of sight for life in…slaughterhouses.

No, I have no interest in debating those options—because BOTH are so utterly, incredibly far from the mandate of God for what we are to do–as individuals AND as a social entity…as a nation–about the helpless among us. I do not have the stomach to compose even a short description of what I have learned about the whole history of this topic in the United States of America. I’ll just say that NO, the “sins” of our own generation are no “worse” than those of any other generation in our history when it comes to how we deal with the poor, the disabled, the stranger, the fatherless. Indeed, the abortion epidemic of recent decades, condoned by government and much of society, is horrible.

But I would argue that God, looking down on what was done throughout our history about reaching out and caring for the weakest among us, may well not see a sliver’s bit of difference in the level of the enormity of our nation’s guilt from past to present.

There has been NO “Golden Generation” in our history that we ought to yearn to emulate and return to, that we might “deserve” God’s favor.

However, there is more to the Black Stork story. Harry Haiselden died prematurely of a brain hemorrhage in 1919 at the age of 49, and the “open” debate in society over some of his opinions quickly died out. But the movie lived on, being shown over and over throughout the country clear up into the 1940s—even years after the movies became “talkies”!

In the next entry in this series we will explore how it led to a much bigger story.

Good Death?? Good Birth?? Good Grief!!

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One Response to Turning a Blind Eye?

  1. Rick says:

    It is sickening that society allows such inhumanity when it comes to the utterly helpless that are born into this world.

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