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Still more Christian urban legends

A case of a non-sentient fetus
reaching out to his surgeon

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Sponsored link.

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About the photograph:

A remarkable photograph was published in USA TODAY early in the year 2000. It has since been very widely circulated by pro-life groups. 1,2,3,4 It was taken during a surgical operation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. A 21 week old fetus suffering from spina bifida was removed from the womb. A lesion was repaired at the base of its spine and the fetus was returned to the womb for a later, natural delivery. As a result, the child seems to have been spared most or all of the complications of the spinal defect, which would normally have included paralysis and brain damage. During the operation, a photographer took a photograph which shows the fetus' hand emerging from the womb, with its fingers wrapped around one of the surgeon's fingers. 1

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Stories about the photograph:

bulletMichael Clancy, the photographer from Nashville, TN, wrote these moving words on his web site:

"During a spina bifida corrective procedure at twenty-one weeks in utero, Samuel thrusts his tiny hand out of the surgical opening of his mother's uterus. As the doctor lifts his hand, Samuel reacts to the touch and squeezes the doctor's finger. As if testing for strength, the doctor shakes the tiny fist. Samuel held firm. At that moment, I took this 'Fetal Hand Grasp' photo." 5

bulletReferring to the photograph, Brad Clanton, counsel for the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said

"It unambiguously illustrates the humanity of an unborn child at approximately the same stage of pregnancy as most infants who are killed by partial-birth abortion...No reasonable person could look at the picture and deny that there is a tiny member of the human race, with an arm, a hand, fingers and a sense of touch."

bulletJames Dobson, founder and head of the Fundamentalist Christian organization Focus on the Family edited a story about the photograph that he picked up from the Internet. It said, in part:
"What you are witnessing should be designated ‘Picture of the Year,’ or, perhaps, ‘The Picture of the Decade.’ It won’t be. Most people will never get an opportunity to see it."

"The photo depicts a 21-week-old pre-born baby ... diagnosed with spina bifida... As Dr. Bruner was probing the opening, the baby’s fully-developed hand wrapped itself around the finger of the surgeon. The photograph captures that amazing moment with perfect clarity."

"This picture should be shown on every newscast and run in every newspaper in America. Every teenager should also see it. Why? Because it is an unmistakable reminder that growing in the womb of each mother is a baby. It is not a ‘blob of tissue,’ or a ‘product of conception.’ A pre-born baby is fully human from the moment of conception. What we see in the photograph expresses that understanding better than a thousand words..."

"That’s what human pregnancy and birth are about — a tiny human being with an eternal soul being formed in the 'image of God.' And that’s what the media elite fails to comprehend. That’s also why they don’t want people to see the incredible picture of this precious baby grasping the hand of his physician. I pray that it will not be hidden forever." 1
bulletThe Presbyterians Pro-Life web site commented: "The fetus and Dr. Bruner are 'holding hands.' " 2
bulletAlmost four years later, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council issued a newsletter stating that "As the surgery finished, almost as if to wave good-bye to the doctors, little Samuel reached his tiny hand through the opening in the womb."

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Inaccuracies in the stories:

These are very emotionally moving stories. However, they contain some inaccuracies:

bulletThe fetus' hand did not wrap "itself around the finger of the surgeon." The fetus was not "grasping the hand of his physician." It had no "sense of touch" at that time of gestation. Another five weeks gestation would be required before the higher functions of the fetal brain become active. Until the fetus reaches the 26 weeks from conception, it has no consciousness. It cannot think. It cannot sense its environment. It cannot feel. Rather, according to the doctor, he saw the hand "sort of pop up in the incision." The fetus did not reach "his tiny hand through the opening in the womb." The surgeon actually "reached over and picked it up." According to the doctor, "The baby did not reach out. The baby was anesthetized. The baby was not aware of what was going on."
bulletThe photograph has not been hidden. It has been widely publicized. It has been featured in USA Today, and is seen on many web sites, including Presbyterians Pro-Life, the Focus on the Family web site, etc. It has been very widely circulated privately. This author received many copies via Email.
bulletThis photograph is not at all typical of fetuses who are aborted. It was 21 weeks (almost 5 months) old when the photo was taken. 90% of all abortions are done during the first three months of pregnancy -- the first trimester; 10% during the fourth to sixth months of pregnancy -- the second trimester. Fewer than 5% are done at the age of this fetus. Almost all abortions at this stage of pregnancy are done because of severe genetic disorders in the fetus, or because some health problem has surfaced that threatens the health or life of the woman. About 0.2% of pregnancies are terminated at this state of fetal development through a D&X procedure (called Partial Birth Abortion by many pro-life groups). But they are generally done in cases where:
bulletThe fetus is dead, or
bulletWhen the fetus has no chance to survive outside the womb, or
bulletTo save the life of the woman, or
bulletTo prevent the woman from developing a serious, permanent disability.

The fetus is now a baby named Samuel. He was delivered on 1999-DEC-2 and has been passing his normal milestones successfully.

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Sponsored link:

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The fetal hand revisited seven years later:

The television program House, MD first shown on 2007-APR-03 was titled "Fetal Position." It involved a pregnant photographer who was suffering from mirror syndrome -- a rare disorder in which the fetus is threatening the life of its mother. In the program, Gregory House, MD, played by Hugh Laurie, heads a team of young diagnosticians at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey. The role of Lisa Cuddy, Dean of Medicine, is played by Lisa Edelstein. 6 Tension is created by Lisa's desire to save the life of the fetus while House advocates that an abortion be performed.

In an effort to save both lives, House performed an operation in-utero. A fetal hand is observed reaching out from within the uterus and grabbing one of House's fingers. House then runs his thumb gently along the fetus' fingers. After the operation, which is successful, House for the first time refers to the fetus as a baby rather than a fetus.

The first draft of the screen-play was reported as:

House: "Haven't you ever vacuumed up a flooded basement? Gimme"

House takes the suction device and carefully drains the amniotic fluid into a warm, sterile container for use later. Suddenly... THE FETUS' TINY HAND REACHES OUT OF THE WOMB And grasps one of House's fingers. He freezes, astonished; unexpectedly swept up in the enormity of the moment.

Cuddy: "Affix the pulse-ox to the palm."

House is frozen.

Cuddy: "House-- "

House suddenly snaps back into reality.

House: (covering) "Sorry; just realized I forgot to TiVo 'Project Runway'." 7

In the version that was broadcast, the flooded basement became a beer keg.

The fetus was diagnosed as a male at 21 weeks gestation -- the same sex and age as for the spinal-bifida fetus. House performed the operation about five weeks before its higher brain functions would have first turned on. Thus, the fictional fetus would be devoid of consciousness, and without any ability to sense its environment, feel pain, make any kind of intentional movement, etc.

It could not happen in real life; but it makes for a spectacular show!

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Related essays on this web site:

bulletChristian urban legend menu
bulletChristian urban legend hoaxes exposed by the ICR

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Additional religious urban folktales can be found at:

bulletTruthOrFiction.com at: http://www.truthorfiction.com/

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References used:

  1. James Dobson, "Dr. Dobson's Study, 2000-APR" at: http://www.family.org/ A copy of the photograph can be seen at this URL.
  2. Presbyterians Pro-Life Research, Education and Care, Inc. has a web site at: http://www.ppl.org/ 
  3. AANEWS release, 2000-MAY-14
  4. " 'Hand of Hope' showcased on Capitol Hill," Family Research Council, Washington Update newsletter, 2003-SEP-26.
  5. Michael Clancy, "A moment...from a child," at: http://www.michaelclancy.com/
  6. "House (TV series)," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/
  7. "House MD Guide to the TV Show," at: http://www.housemd-guide.com/ This is expected to be a temporary listing.

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Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Creation date: mid-=2000
Last update: 2007-APR-04
Author: B.A. Robinson

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