Human Exceptionalism

Child With Missing Cerebellum Shows Power of Human Spirit

A child born without a cerebellum is learning to walk. From the story:

A three-year-old boy has baffled doctors after he has started learning to walk, despite missing a key part of his brain. Chase Britton was born prematurely and an MRI scan at the age of one revealed he was completely missing his cerebellum – the part which controls motor skills, balance and emotions. The little boy, who is legally blind, also has no pons – part of the brain stem that regulates basic functions including breathing and sleeping.

But instead of being unable to carry out tasks like sitting up or crawling, Chase has forced experts to rethink how the brain functions. His mother Heather Britton told AOL News: ‘We call him the Little Gremlin. He loves to play tricks on people. His goal in life is to make people smile. ‘No one had ever seen it before. And then we’d go to the neurologists and they’d say, “that’s impossible, he has the MRI of a vegetable”.’ Dr Adre du Plessis, chief of Foetal and Transitional Medicine at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington D.C., told WGRZ: ‘There are some very bright, specialised people across the country and in Europe that have put their minds to this dilemma and are continuing to do so, and we haven’t come up with an answer

The V-word should never be applied to any human, but that point aside, think very carefully about this story.  Throughout bioethics, we have been told that anencephalic babies–that is, children without (generally different) parts of their brains (and parts of their skulls) are not “persons,” should be considered not human, should be considered as splendid sources for organ harvesting, etc.  There was even an experiment in using such babies in that instrumental way.  But because the principle that sick babies could be used instrumentally sunk into the heads of doctors, it had to be canceled because doctors were sending babies with other conditions to be organ suppliers.  From my Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America:

In 1988, Loma Linda University in California created an organ procurement protocol to use anencephalic babies as organ donors in which physicians from around the country were asked to transfer, with parental permission, qualified infants to the Loma Linda University Medical Center where the procurement would take place.  The program only lasted eight months before it had to be suspended, in part because of the inability of Loma Linda doctors to procure usable organs in thirteen attempts.  However, the primary reason for shutting down the initiative was that physicians referred non-anencephalic, disabled babies to Loma Linda for organ procurement.

Dr. Shewmon, USC bioethicist and law professor Alexander M. Capron and others, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association described what happened:

[T]he experience at transplantation referral centers indicates that enthusiasm for using anencephalics does indeed quickly extend to other categories of dying infants.  As a result of the national interest in Loma Linda’s protocol, for example, that institution received from ‘good’ physicians several referrals of infants with less severe anomalies for organ donation, such as ‘babies born with an abnormal amount of fluid around the brain or those born without kidneys but with a normal brain.’  Moreover, the referring physicians ‘couldn’t understand the difference’ between such newborns and anencephalics.”  Joyce Peabody, MD, chief of neonatology there and primary drafter of the protocol, deserves much credit for her courageously candid statement: ‘I have become educated by the experience. … The slippery slope is real.’[i]


[i] D. Alan  Shewmon, et al, “The Use of Anencephalic Infants as Organ Sources: A Critique,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 261, p. 1775.

This child wasn’t technically anencephalic, but in the Netherlands, he would have qualified for extermination  under the Groningen Protocol, by which Dutch doctors euthanize infants with terminal and seriously disabling conditions.  They kill infants in Belgium, too.  And no doubt, he might have been treated as a lost cause in most countries.

But the moral of the story is that all of us should be treated as fully human, no matter how dire our seeming circumstances.  And sometimes there is no suppressing the power of human will, and if you will, what is often called the human spirit.

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