Baby Fae: A Life

Article excerpt

Like a poem in the familiar epigram, a baby's life should not mean but be. Baby Fae was not given that simple existential luxury of infancy. The lives of other children acquire meaning slowly, in families, play, school and work. But almost from birth, her tenuous life was burdened with ehtical controversy, medical significance and social consequences. Nor did death provide its customary oblivion. Baby Fae has entered history as a public figure, a subject for study and debate.

The case of Baby Fae, as distinct from the tiny girl herself, arose in a cultural context that is understood no better than the genetic dysfunction that deformed her heart. American society seems to be in a state of extreme anxiety about its children. Abortion, birth defects, child abuse and infant sexuality make front-page news, enter political campaigns and serve at the material of made-for-TV movies. Parents and Presidents plead for organs to transplant in dying infants, and big-name entertainers instruct youngsters about how to avoid molesters.

The government--its lawmakers, police and educators--is alternately blamed for children's distress and implored to find a cure. Huge amounts of money are sought for crash medical programs to correct rare illnesses and defects. Extraordinary restrictions on personal freedom are mandated to prevent infrequent assaults. With hardly a dissenting voice, for instance, New York City has begun the compulsory fingerprinting of 100,000 child-care workers after a score of children were reported to have been sexually mistreated. Families, in the abstract, are scolded for their neglect of children's welfare; at the same time, the courts (as in the case of Baby Jane Doe) are asked to assume the parent's role in making health and welfare decisions.

Some social psychologists theorize that modern times have separated parents from their children to such a degree that the elders look on the youngsters as strangers, as "others" over whom they have diminishing control. …