Samuel Armas made more of an impact on this world before he was born than most of us make in a lifetime.–Michael Clancy.
Clancy would know. He recorded Samuel’s heroic grasp in the 1999 photograph now known as “The Hand of Hope.”
Samuel’s parents learned before their son was born that he had spina bifida, a hole in his spine which would leave him physically and mentally disabled. Termination of the pregnancy was not an option; Samuel’s parents wanted him regardless of his disabilities. This same courage drove them to find an answer to his problem.
When Samuel was 24-weeks-old in utero, his mother underwent surgery to correct his condition. After the surgery was completed, Clancy noticed that the womb was moving and no one was touching it. In a split second, a hand reached through the incision in the womb. A doctor touched it and the tiny hand, in a motion that recalls Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, tightly squeezed the doctor’s finger.
Clancy took the picture. An attending nurse asked what happened. When he explained, she responded, “Oh, they do that all the time.”
Senator Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) sponsored a Senate hearing last Thursday to highlight advances in fetal surgery. Witnesses included Samuel’s parents, photographer Michael Clancy, Dr. James Thorpe a maternal fetal-medicine specialist, and Samuel himself. For Washingtonians whose work focuses on family, life, and bioethics issues, Brownback’s hearing provided a rare opportunity.
We’re used to fighting hard and we understand the voices of Americans outside the Beltway who neither understand nor accept the culture of death. Although it’s been 30 years since Roe v. Wade was passed, legalizing abortion on demand throughout the United States, we haven’t lost. The fight’s still going.
Kate Michelman, president of NARAL-Pro-Choice America, alluded to our strength when she recently announced her upcoming resignation. She fears that we will win and bring back a culture of life, in which each person is protected from conception until natural death.
Senator Brownback clearly stated that the hearing on Thursday was not about abortion. As he pointed out, it’s a given that the unborn child is alive. The question for another hearing would be, Is this life is worth protecting?
Advances in fetal surgery provide the opportunity to witness the unique character of a child even before birth. When Samuel reached his hand through the opening in the womb, he became a hero. He reminded us why we do the work we do, why we love our families and work to protect them, and why we strive to protect innocent human life at every stage of development.
While the legislature and the courts may lag behind, medicine has already granted unborn children special rights as patients. Dr. Thorpe specializes in unborn patients. They’re people who aren’t recognized by law, but he treats them. In Samuel’s case, the insurance company also recognized him and covered the bill. In the eyes of the law, Samuel didn’t exist at that point. Naming him was pure sentimentality since personhood would only be granted to him once he was born. His surgery, however, was reality, not a figment of someone’s imagination.
Samuel may only be three-years-old, but he was able to identify himself when the senator pointed to the “Hand of Hope” and asked him if he knew who it was.
Easy. “Baby Samuel.”
The senator proceeded to ask Samuel if he knew what had been done to him.
“They fixed my boo-boo.”
Technology and medicine have enabled us to come to know the personality of the unborn child earlier and earlier in its development. Just this month, doctors in the U.K. recorded the smiles of unborn children, 24-weeks-old, through ultrasound. This technology, most notably provided by General Electric, enables parents to see their unborn child so clearly that they can note whether he’s got mom’s mouth, dad’s chin, or grandma’s nose.
The same technology allows doctors to see complications so that specialists like Dr. Thorpe can operate on in utero infants as young as 19-weeks-old, correcting such defects as cleft palate and spina bifida. Doctors may soon be able to provide in utero the type of cord-blood-cell transfusions (adult stem cells) that cured 16-year-old Keone Penn of sickle-cell anemia. In other words, they can start a child’s cure before her birth.
Dr. Thorpe’s patients are just like any small child. They shrink from the pain of the needle when they get a shot. They draw back and literally need to be chased around the womb. They require sedation for surgery like other patients because they react to pain. Only science limits the treatment of the unborn child, and as it advances the limit becomes younger and younger.
Last week was yet another instance when we were able to witness the miracle of life authentically assisted by science. The conversation as Senator Brownback interviewed his three-year-old witness reminded us all of the unique personality and gifts that each person has. Samuel was the star of that room and everyone wanted to know his story. Without the love and courage of Samuel’s parents and his doctors, we likely would not know Samuel. He would not have had the chance to awe us with his first handshake.
Samuel has been a charmer since before he was born. Perhaps the next time Samuel’s visiting in D.C., the Supreme Court justices and many of our congressmen could spend some time with him to better understand the continuum of human dignity. After all, if a three-year-old can get it…