Infanticide in New York City: The “Cyclops Child”

 

Around 1959 or 1960, a baby with severe disabilities was born at the now-closed St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. In last week’s Psychology Today, Dr. Fredric Neuman, a psychiatrist in New York who was an intern at the hospital, describes the inhumane treatment meted out to the baby in a piece called The Cyclops Child.

Infanticide in New York City, ca. 1960

The obstetrician pronounced the child (whose gender Dr. Neuman does not note, referring to the baby as “it”) to be a “monster” and, fearful of ” the effect on its mother of seeing the child,” told the parents that the baby was born dead. Hospital staff were told that the baby would soon die.

The baby lived for 13 days. The baby was kept in the St. Vincent’s pediatrics ward and not fed or given fluids. Dr. Neuman was instructed by a resident to amputate one of the baby’s extra fingers so he could “use this opportunity as a learning experience.” Nursing staff, many of whom were nuns, were instructed not to comfort the baby and Dr. Neuman, aware from the child’s screams that “the baby was suffering, and so was everyone else,” contemplated killing the child by suffocation.

Dr. Neuman writes of his disbelief whenever the baby — clearly not considered a human being — showed signs of pain and suffering:

Because it did not look like a human being, most of the time no one was disturbed by it; until it cried! Then it sounded like any other baby.

The kid was in pain. It could feel pain. I should have realized that, but somehow I did not. It was because the baby did not really look like a baby, I thought.

In his response to comments about The Cyclops Child, Dr. Neuman seeks to justify not only his actions but what he wrote about the baby. If you ask me, he only implicates himself further with statements such as:

…no one would want a memento about having given birth to this child.

The Cyclops child is too strange for anyone to imagine. But, perhaps, the reader can imagine something else. Try to imagine an interaction between that child and its mother.  Imagine her reaction to this horribly deformed child doomed, obviously, to die. I think the mother would have been crippled by seeing the baby she just gave birth to. Perhaps you think I am exaggerating. Is it possible to be crippled simply by seeing something? It is. I have seen someone marred permanently by seeing a twin brother who was walking besides him crushed by falling masonry. More than one soldier has been damaged permanently by standing next to a friend who has been blown apart.

A Monstrous Piece of Writing

I read the essay last night and I have not been able to get the baby, born with holoprosencephaly, out of my thoughts. I want to go back in time and march over to the baby’s crib and hold her or him.

I hope you will read Dr. Neuman’s account. It reads like a confession. It is one of the most monstrous pieces of writing I have read.

My response to Dr. Neuman’s post is that of a parent of a teenage son who is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. My son Charlie’s disability was not apparent when he was born and I suspect that Dr. Neuman would argue that Charlie’s case is completely different. But the  patronizing tone towards parents in Dr. Neuman’s post — the notion that the baby’s mother would have been “crippled” to see her child — was precisely that levied at parents of autistic children in the same period. Accused of causing autism in their children by being emotionally “frigid” refrigerator mothers, parents had their autistic children taken away from them “for their own good,” just as the doctors at St. Vincents decided about the baby.

Dr. Neuman states that the baby has “haunted” him through the years. A reader may wonder why he chose to write The Cyclops Child. In a response to horrified and disgusted comments (“The legal and ethical issues surrounding the events of this victimized family are so disturbing that I hope the NY State Medical Board investigates the physicians involved and takes appropriate action,” says one reader), Dr. Neuman defiantly justifies not only his and the hospital’s acts but his writing The Cyclops Child. Noting that his own daughter asked him why he wanted to “publish something that was going to make some people angry and upset some others,” Dr. Neuman seeks to take the medical ethics high road:

First, it presents real ethical problems that are worth thinking about.  Doctors wrestle with these problems out of the sight of others who prefer not to be aware of them. But they should be aware of them. Second, I have to admit, I would like to grab those people who are smug and certain about what is right and wrong and say to them, ”What about this?” “What do you do here?” “What if this awful thing is happening?

These are valid questions. I do think Dr. Neuman’s post, the comments and his response should be required reading for anyone considering becoming a doctor and certainly for medical students. But as a parent who routinely faces ethical quandaries in raising an autistic son, and who also routinely faces ugly and terrible situations that most people would rather not hear about let alone experience (such as seeing Charlie hit his head on tree trunks, driveways, walls, tables,  car trunks and car windows), I question Dr. Neuman’s attempts to say the whole point of his account is to raise academic questions about medical ethics.

A Physician Questions Dr. Neuman’s Actions and Attitude

I am writing as a parent of a child with disabilities. On The Atlantic, Ford Vox, a brain injury physician says that, in his post, Dr. Neuman “essentially confesses to criminal breaches of medical ethics.” Vox points out that the post is “like a morbid time capsule.” For all that Dr. Neuman writes about events in the past, he sometimes falls into the present tense and does not update his medical terminology. Writes Vox:

A word about this baby’s condition, holoprosencephaly. As humans develop in the womb from a bundle of cells into distinct tissues and organs, the nervous system emerges from a structure called the “neural tube.” In rare instances that doesn’t form appropriately. In the case of holoprosencephaly, a defect in the neural tube occurs at the head, and various midline structures like the brain, eyes, and mouth may not fully form. In this case, Dr. Neuman describes the deformity using “cyclops” — which is actually a valid medical term, but is used here outside of the appropriate pathological context — in describing eye tissue that did not separate into two distinct eyes. It is disturbing that the term holoprosencephaly never occurs in his essay.

Certainly Dr. Neuman feels guilty about his treatment of the child. As abhorrent as his actions were, and as angered as I feel about his presumptuousness about “protecting” the “delicate” psyches of parents, I think it is better that he wrote The Cyclops Child. In regard to medical ethics and to the treatment of those with disabilties, Dr. Neuman’s piece is a reminder that we are not quite as “advanced” and “sophisticated” as we consider ourselves.

As Vox writes, “Though I would like to think of “The Cyclops Child” as a dusty artifact, it nonetheless appeared on my computer in 2012, from the mind of person living contemporaneously.”

Infanticide in Pakistan, 2012

Last week, a man in Pakistan was arrested for burying his baby daughter alive because she had physical deformities, a “fairly large” head and “abnormal” features. The father, Chand Khan, is said to have told relatives that his daughter was born dead and to have arranged for a funeral. Mohammed Farooq, a doctor at al-Shifa hospital in Kacha Khoh who had seen the child, said that “No one has the right to kill anyone because of his or her physical deformity.” Khan could be sentenced to death if found guilty of killing his daughter.

The killing of a baby born with physical deformities, whether it happened in Manhattan or in Pakistan, is infanticide and there is no difference.

 

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263 comments

Laurie S.
Laurie S.3 years ago

1 of 5

It's not going to get me any popularity points, but I am with Marta. This man was still an Intern and was not responsible for the decision of the doctor in charge of the case. Further, to whom should he have reported this back then? The attending doctor, the nurses, the ward manager, the hospital administrator all had to know already. Everyone who outranked him in the power structure at the hospital was involved, and the only people he could have gone to were the police, and get fired for doing it for a child who was doomed to die anyway, since its deformities meant it could not be fed. I don't know if you noticed, but he said most of it's head was GONE. Not misshapen, just plain not there.

Also, far from being uncaring, he was clearly haunted by the incident, and his superior's decision in the matter for decades. He was ordered to do a procedure, and suddenly fled, unable to proceed when the poor, deformed baby cried. He struggled with what to do, or whether to do anything at all, in a time when none of our current medical technology was available.

Laurie S.
Laurie S.3 years ago

2 of 5

If you don't believe that, look up the history of medicine and see how many things we take care of routinely today they could not do anything about.

The decision the attending doctor and the hospital made that day and in the week that followed was not made in a cultural vacuum either. All of the elements necessary to allow the child to die were already in place.


I once had a person tell me about his great grandmother's work as a midwife, and how women came to her place to be tended while giving birth. When a baby was born deformed, she would show it to the father, and if he saw fit, he would take it out to the orchard on her property and bury it. Nothing was said. That was in the late 1800's to the early 1900's! It is only a country with the best technology in the world and the money and will to use it that makes the decision to save everyone with all the medical measures possible, no matter the problem.

In his writings you can see how hard it was for him to contemplate killing the baby, even to ease the suffering of the nurses who had to be on deathwatch with it 24 hours a day.

Gysele van Santen

this sounds like a horror movie. not because of the poor little baby. because of how badly the baby was treated by those people.

Laurie S.
Laurie S.3 years ago

3 of 5

Even then he agonized over whether or not he could commit what was essentially a mercy killing, and never got a chance to find out if he would have been able to do it, because nature brought that life to its inevitable end before he could act.

Of course the story is horrifying, and you know he has a conscience because he would not still think about it today if he did not. This after decades of life saving work and care of thousands of other people. It hurts him still.

He’s right about how everyone who doesn’t have to face the situation thinks that the answer is easy and obvious. Suppose you and someone else you didn’t know were in a plane crash, and lost in the wilderness, with the other person dying slowly of wounds and screaming constantly, you were faced with watching that other person die slowly because there was nothing you could do, or with his consent helping him die. Could you do it? What would you think of someone who self righteously judged you simply because you had to consider the alternatives and decide?

We all like to think that the outcomes of every event around us hinge solely on our own decision to act or not, but it isn’t so. We are not sole actors in the world, and there are many situations that are out of our immediate control. The correct answer to a difficult ethical problem is usually perfectly obvious only to the person who doesn’t have to make the decision or take responsibility for it.

Laurie S.
Laurie S.3 years ago

4 of 5

I understand what it means to remember an event for decades. When I was 10 years old (I think, could have been 11) My family was boating on the San Joaquin river delta, and we were flagged down by a stranded boat of frantic people who were in desperate need of help. They had been skiing, and the steering had gone out as they wheeled round to pick up a downed skier. They went right over him at high speed, and the prop of the outboard engine caught him in the right hip and tore through his back in an instant, all the way to his left shoulder, smashing and chopping his spine in three long gashes that wrenched the vertebrae out of place. Then the rope got tangled in the prop and they were stuck out there watching him bleed to death. Dad and my brother put one of the boat seats flat and laid him out on it. Then we took off for the marina as fast as we could go, my father driving, my brother and mother in front, and because no one could think straight from shock, me sitting in back waving the “skier down” flag, as I was told to do, watching the man die from a distance of two feet away.

I was a very smart kid, and I had seen enough Emergency One shows to know how serious it was. I could see his fixed and dilated pupils, and how his pulse was slowing in the lessening flow of blood from his injuries.

Laurie S.
Laurie S.3 years ago

5 of 5

I could hear him murmuring to himself in shock, asking if he had hurt his hand, and forgetting my assurances that he would be alright, and asking again. He died.

I can still see his face. I felt guilt for being unable to do anything for him for 30 years, even though there was nothing I could do, and no way a 10 year old should have been expected to do anything. So when he says, “I wish I could stop thinking about it, because it was more than 50 years ago now.” I get it. I understand that. It’s burned onto his retinas.

And yet he has more courage than the others. It must have occurred to some of you that he can’t be the only person who was there who is still alive now. When the storm of it blew up, do you think there was a single person who was there then that didn’t know exactly which child he was talking about? They all remember too. He was in an impossible situation that had no easy answer, and they are still silent; to this day, they have said nothing, but at last he did. You should all hope you never face anything like this, and if you ever do, you won’t ever think the same way about that type of situation again, I guarantee it.

Sandra Lewis
Sandra Lewis3 years ago

The baby should have been given morphine for pain, and a feeding tube, plus comfort until it's fate was decided by nature, at the very least. Obviously, the mother should have been told and no "experiments" should have been carried out in secret. That situation was Dr. Neuman's life test and it was a Epic Fail. He proved one psychiatric point--that it is easy to find people who will commit atrocities like a Nazi, while acting like it is "normal", just to fit in with the status quo. Dr. Neuman is a good little Nazi.

Norma Robbins
Norma Robbins3 years ago

To Marta B: Even though this Dr. was an intern at the time, he had the obligation to report the attending physician's actions regarding the poor baby. The attending physician did not have the right to not tell the mother about her baby ,& did have the right to decide if she should see her baby. The physician put the baby someplace in a room, & left it to die. The mother should have been the one to decide the fate of the baby. Also, there are other ways to feed a baby. a tube can be put into the stomach, through the navel & it can be fed that way. The physician, & intern, & everyone else who knew about the situation, were negligible, & should be held accountable . How hospital staff could go by the baby's room, hear it's cries ,& not go & try to console it, or report the Dr., is unconscionable.

Beth M.
Beth M.3 years ago

And this is what doctors and nuns did?? God will repay in kind.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson3 years ago

we arent so far from this now :( we kill unborn babies because they MAY have deformities. some kill their unwanted child based on gender. we act as though we have come so far, we haven't. My heart breaks for this child, and for it's family.