Physician Thomas Elkins discusses the impact of Baby Doe on abortion, technology, and medicine’s own shifting ethic.

The University of Tennessee Medical Center is an assortment of clinics, classrooms, and research labs bound together by futuristic glass walkways strung high above downtown Memphis. Inhabited by white-smocked men and women in various stages of their professional development, it is a stunning monument to the power and prestige of medicine.

Within its labyrinth hallways and cubicles, the realities of today and the hopes for tomorrow are seen on the faces of physician and patient alike, and in the beeping, whirring, flashing machinery keeping technological watch over weakened humanity.

Among the most spectacular wonders, and the one bringing me here, is the neonatal intensive care unit, one of the largest of its kind in the country. Eighty “cribs,” attached to an assortment of high-tech monitors documenting heartsounds, brainwaves, and respiration, succor infants who five years ago would have been dead at birth. The majority are premature, infants born as early as their twenty-fifth week (normal gestation is 40 weeks) and weighing as little as one-and-a-half pounds.

Handicapped babies are also among this critical care population, infants born with a variety of abnormalities from Down’s syndrome and spina bifida, to such devastating miscarriages as anencephaly, a condition where the child is born without a brain.

By chance I was visiting the center on the day President Reagan signed into law the Child Abuse Amendment of 1984, which included the controversial Baby Doe provisions. Enactment of this legislation had followed by more than two years the widely publicized death of Baby Doe in Bloomington, Indiana. There, ...

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