Baby K was born to a fundamentalist mother. This is a true story, and while the mother preferred that she remain anonymous, because of its portentous impact on bioethics and the high profile of her case, she is known as Ms. H and the baby as Baby K for the sake of identifying both.
Until now, I have not done with the semantics what I ought to: put ‘mother’, ‘baby’, and ‘born’ in quotes. Baby K was anencephalic – born without a brain, or indeed any cerebral tissue above the brainstem.
Anencephaly is inevitably fatal, and is an open-and-shut case of futile care. There is absolutely no way that a fetus that fails to develop a forebrain – along with all the manifold receptors and regulators for various hormones, the center of consciousness and everything – will survive long. Most are aborted – over 95% – and the few that are carried to term owing to absurd ‘religious’ convictions – their own or someone else’s (in spite of pretty much every major religion rejecting the preposterous idea that a wise and just God would invest a soul in such a creature) – or hardship (Ask Me About Socialized Medicine.)… well, they don’t survive long. Even palliative care (care intended to reduce suffering and render comfort for those whose death is imminent – oppose aggressive clinical care, which seeks to cure the condition that the patient suffers above all else) is fairly controversial in the case of anencephalic births. You can literally see the ‘child”s naked spinal cord at birth – there is an unobstructed view where their scalp should be – what the hell purpose is there in feeding or watering that?
I mean, we water plants, but that’s mostly because we derive pleasure from keeping them alive in spite of their lives being more mechanical than ethical.
Which brings us to the strange and sad case of Baby K. In order to pretend that she had given birth to a child instead of a twisted monstrosity, Ms. H stridently insisted that God had invested Baby K with a soul and it was God’s responsibility rather than that of any doctor or even herself to decide when Baby K would ‘die’. Her batshit convictions lead her to decide that the little horror that had formed in her womb was as fully human as anyone around her.
This is where the story takes on a peculiarly familiar tone. Ms. H was not only wasting state resources; a strictly utilitarian calculus, after all, is deeply unsatisfying when it comes to matters like this. (Note that I say ‘like this’ – in this case, it is perfectly satisfying to conclude that nothing actually makes the lump of malformed flesh alive in any real sense and that there is no obligation on the behalf of the state to spend time or money on its care.) But we’ll get to that later; the fact of the matter is she simply inflicted on everyone concerned, among them professionals only doing their jobs in an unrewarding field, to bear Baby K to term.
Seem familiar? If you recognize Terri Schiavo here, congratulations on having better neurological capacity than Baby K. The same mentality went into declaring a creature with the face of a woman, the brain mass of a housecat, and the neurological activity of a bean sprout a human being. It’s tempting, but hyperbolic, to say there’s no consistency there; that the fundamentalist movement in fact lacks any element of intellectual rigor or coherence. Tempting, but incorrect.
That consistency lies in their self-absorption.
There’s a very good reason that so many ‘fundamentalist’ Christians insist on a scatter-brained and ridiculous reading of the Bible that asserts the Sermon on the Mount, a proto-socialist screed and a direct rejection of comfortable life in civilized society, only applies after the Second Coming. Hell, they reject the most basic forms of charity, common to all moral people, as ‘fostering dependence’ or ‘enabling’, leaning on absurd formulas like ‘a hand up, not a handout’. The same reason governs the fact that there’s a disproportionately Christian influence among tax-evaders who pretend that historical, legalistic, or philosophical conspiracy theory enables them to find a certain syntactic formula to exempt them from the most basic duty to society. It’s the same attitude that causes Pat Robertson to squint hard as he prays so everyone will know how Christian he is and send lots and lots of money.
It is why televangelists die so damn rich; it is how the preposterous Prosperity Gospel exists, and it is why The Secret’s hawkers can honestly pretend that Jesus was a millionaire and that he was a prosperity teacher and with his teachings you can get rich too.
The basic truth behind ‘fundamentalism’ in America is the basic truth of capitalism: look out for Number One and to hell with everyone else. In this case, Ms. H was made aware that ‘Baby’ K was anencephalic long before it was due – long before the normal cutoff for termination of pregnancy – and owing to the extenuating circumstances abortion would have been an option even later than it normally is. The normal moral issues of abortion are almost never considered to apply in cephalic disorders, precisely because the ‘life’ of the ‘child’ isn’t even theoretically a valid concern – there ain’t anything about an anencephalic fetus that you can call alive unless you’re a really enthusiastic cardiologist.
In light of all that, think about Ms. K’s position. She didn’t just make an impulsive choice in the heat of the moment; she had time to meditate on her actions and chose to carry the hideous lump of humanoid flesh inside her to term. Then, when it had emerged in all its glory – by some awful accident with its vital functions up and running and its brainstem functioning – she decided she wanted to play mommy. So she expected the hospital to keep Baby K alive, at its own time and expense.
For some ridiculous reason, the court actually agreed with her – applying inappropriately the standards of care for pneumonia (which the ‘infant’, not having the capacity to continue breathing for prolonged periods independently, had symptoms of) where anencephaly serves as a clear mitigating factor for the relevance of those standards. It’s like suing someone for breach of contract when they break the code of conduct in fleeing their burning apartment building.
The state of Virginia played along, and she got to live in a sick little Christian fantasy world where she got to be the mommy of a living baby every bit as human as everyone else.
Including the nurses that she forced to give Baby K respiratory care – something that a ‘child’ without a Goddamn cerebellum regularly requires. And owing to the wonders of modern medicine and the peculiar cruelty of fate, Baby K survived for two and a half years.
For two and a half years, a long train of nurses, technicians, doctors, and other professionals had to service the needs of a horrific parody of human life. That’s trauma 101, buddy – having to intubate and sustain a living breathing thing with a concave brainpan, trying in futility for hours to look away from its little eyes – almost like the dozens of pairs of eyes most people have seen, in the form of siblings and cousins and friends’ children and even their own, in healthy babies.
Every night after the nurses and doctors to deal with Baby K had to contend with a day spent staring into those hideous dead eyes, a sort of cruel mockery of everything we hold dear. Something deep in us, hard-wired since the Triassic, demands that we attend to our young and find them more precious than anything. A sort of fundamental, irrational repugnance attaches itself to the very concept of nonviability in infants.
Consider Harlequin Fetus. (I know you don’t want to.) You’re on the Internet, which means you’ve probably seen the picture of a man distending his asshole so big he can fit in a football lengthwise. People joke about that all the time. I find it funny, and you’ve at least made your peace with it if you’re in our audience. There are less funny things out there that people joke about, still find funny. What they used to call ‘suitcase hentai’ and now refer to by its proper Japanese name, guro: schoolgirls chopped into little pieces. Weightlifters suffering hideous and extremely conspicuous anal prolapse. Budd Dwyer’s face twisting into a grin the moment after his last, nose bleeding with a new lead toupee. A matador with a bull’s horn up his ass. Hitler jokes.
They’re all hilarious to us.
But so few people will joke in all seriousness about Harlequin Fetus, even people who are completely cavalier about human life. They are not comfortable in its presence, because there is something about infancy that does not permit the horrific.
My father is horribly indecent – good man, but awful. He’s gotten his fellow doctors to alternate between laughter and horror at stuff like using a guy’s severed calf as an impromptu hand puppet; he can go through little old ladies dying on him and still laugh and joke at dinner the same day.
But when he does pediatric trauma, he doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning.
So Ms. H abused dozens of people who were only doing their damn job – not a glamorous one, or one that paid well, and one in which they normally would see this kind of truly awful shit only a few times in their entire career – for the sole benefit of keeping the little monstrous meatwad growing inside her breathing, pretending it was a real baby and making as if she was a real mommy. She took it to court, made the state spend money defending its wish not to expend money or time or energy on Baby K’s ludicrously futile care.
And she is now proud of herself. She believes she fought the good fight here, that she was in the moral right to viciously and remorselessly shit in dozens of innocent people’s nests for her own idle and idiotic pleasure. She and her supporters believe that their ’cause’ is a sacred one vindicated by history.
Only months before Baby K’s futile heart at last ceased its terrible beating, Newt Gingrich was inaugurated as Speaker of the House.