Anencephalic Babies & Organ Removal

by Dr. Amy Liu Longacre

Not long ago, Baby Theresa was born with anencephaly. Her parents desired that someone should benefit from the tragedy, and decided that Theresa's organs should be donated to help others. While I can fully appreciate their grief and their desire to bring good out of the situation, I still oppose the legalization of taking organs from anencephalic children.

In February of 1986, I was approximately five months pregnant and went for a routine ultrasound. My child was diagnosed as anencephalic. Abortion was not an option. I believe in the ultimate sanctity of human life regardless of disability or life expectancy.

But, like Baby Theresa's parents, my husband and I explored the option of organ donation. We ran into some unexpected findings:

1. Anencephaly in itself does not cause death; rather, the lack of cortical function causes eventual cessation of cardiac and respiratory function.

2. Stillborn children are not usable as organ sources, because at the time of death the acid levels in the body rise so quickly that the organs are irreparably damaged.

3. Taking organs from an anencephalic child requires maintenance of the baby's life via artificial means until the desired organ is removed. Therefore a grisly scene follows in which the child is kept alive until the desired part can be removed.

4. The anencephalic child does have brain stem function, which is the current legal distinction between a person who is alive and one who is not. If we abandon the current definition, who will determine what is enough brain function to warrant the label "alive"? And isn't it an easy justification for the destruction of mentally handicapped individuals to say that their lives are useful because they can grow organs to benefit other, more mentally capable people?

On July 4, 1986, my baby's birthday arrived. Joshua Michael Liu was not an it, not a thing, not a bag of spare parts. He was my son. He lived 12 short hours, and we were fortunate to have that brief time together. We cuddled him and told him how much we loved him.

So, as much as we deeply grieve with Baby Theresa's parents, we are sure that seeking meaning for a child's life by donating the organs to others is not an answer.

This article originally appeared in the Alameda (CA) Times Star.