This baby has taken America by the shoulders and given us a good shake.

These remarks by U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop were adapted from a speech presented to the Committee of Hospital Care of the American Academy of Pediatrics on September 19, 1984, in Chicago.

Baby Doe has figuratively taken America by the shoulders—and given us all a good shake. He asks us to confess how we really feel about our fellow human beings. He prods us into revealing whether or not we are the friends of the helpless, the weak, the hurt, the injured, the troubled. Indeed, he challenges us all.

Baby Doe reminded the medical establishment that while we cannot always find a cure, we can offer patients something else just as valuable. We can offer genuine care. Our patients may still need us as people, even though we can’t do very much for them as physicians.

That’s an important message. But it is a demanding one. It demands that we lay aside our medical texts, sit down, and work through those questions and answers that are spun out of the depths of our conscience. My considered judgment, worked out over some years, tells me we ought to do those things that give a person all the life to which he or she is entitled, but not to do anything that would vainly extend that person’s act of dying.

I was asked to do some long-distance hypothesizing about Baby Doe’s chances, but refused. I believed then, and I believe more intensely now, that these problems can best be answered by clear-thinking, responsible people who are right there on the scene.

Baby Doe did not fit neatly into any of our legal pigeonholes. His was not a straightforward case of child abuse and neglect in which a normal, healthy child is the victim of parental violence. The key to this case ...

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