A case of a non-sentient fetus
reaching out to his surgeon
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
Stories about the photograph:
Michael 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'
Referring 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."
James 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
The Presbyterians Pro-Life web site commented: "The fetus and Dr.
Bruner are 'holding hands.' " 2
Almost 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."
Inaccuracies in the stories:
These are very emotionally moving stories. However, they contain some
The 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."
The 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.
This 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:
The fetus is dead, or
When the fetus has no chance to survive outside the womb, or
To save the life of the woman, or
To 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.
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
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!