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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