Is Baby Samuel surgery photo an Urban Legend?

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*** UPDATE: Friend and reader Rachael pointed us to the Urban Legends site that says the description for the Baby Samuel photo is "inaccurate."

It cites an Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper article from December 13, 2000, that says the baby's hand merely "flopped out" and that Dr. Joseph Bruner said (though there are no actual quotes from Bruner) that he simply lifted it and tucked it back into the uterus. Snopes.com however is lacking in that they missed the most important source: it doesn't cite the original article on the story, from April 2000. More on that below.

I suppose the claim on Snopes.com could be true. Perhaps the baby didn't initiate grasping the doctor's finger tightly. Perhaps it was the normal infant reaction to any touch, or perhaps it was just a baby stretching its arm into a new open space where none had existed before.

Isn't that still human? Isn't that still a human life? A fully-formed hand, fingers, skin, knuckles, and blood vessels, tendons, bones, ligaments and nerves inside? Possibly even fingernails? At 21 weeks of unborn age?

I have to wonder though if the story is all that "inaccurate."

My first thought was that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is among the most left-leaning newspapers in the country (one example: they employ nationally-syndicated, myth-addled, pro-abortion, pro-contraception columnist Cynthia Tucker). The paper and Dr. Bruner probably got a ration of Sh-- from AJC's liberal readers about this unmistakable reminder that, as Bill Cosby once said about his unborn baby, "It's HUMAN in there!"

I also found this site, Truth or Fiction, which apparently did its own research and actually spoke to Dr. Bruner, the mother and to Vanderbilt University, which Snopes.com/Urban Legends appears not to have done:

According to the mother who had the surgery, Vanderbilt University, where the procedure took place, and he [sic] photographer who took the picture, this story is true.

...In this particular surgery, the baby's hand poked out of the incision in its mother's womb and Dr. Bruner says he instinctively offered his finger for the baby to hold. Most versions of the story say the baby reached out and grasped Dr. Bruner's finger, but in an article in USA Today on May 2, 2000, Dr. Bruner says both the mother and the baby were under anesthesia and could not move.

At least one of the three photos in this slideshow (scroll down) appear to show the baby's hand in a tight-fisted grip of the surgeon's finger.

Here is the original April 2000 AJC article, which isn't Googlable but was reprinted on good ol' FreeRepublic (where every conservative or pro-life mainstream article seems to live on despite the original media source making sure to remove it from the web):

To ease the strain, Bruner often talks to the fetuses while he works --- to soothe them and keep them quiet, and to let them know what is going on. Sometimes he conveys a message from the parents: We love you. We are trying our best to help.

"So I feel like I have developed a personal relationship with each of the fetuses," he said. "So when Samuel's hand appeared in the uterine opening, I impulsively reached out and lifted it. It was a very human thing to do, to reach out and take someone's hand."

Over his shoulder, Bruner heard the photographer's motordrive fire.

"When I saw the proof, I was astonished at what a powerful photograph it was," he said. "But even so, I was surprised by the media attention that it received."

The statement doesn't clearly define "appeared in the uterine opening" and the photographer clearly states he saw the baby's entire arm reach out then pull back. Maybe Dr. Bruner, who wasn't actually the spinal surgeon, wasn't looking in that direction at that moment and didn't actually see the arm reach out.

Interestingly, that April 2000 article also reported that the photographer was fully pro-choice, at least until he saw what he saw and snapped those photos:

Up to that point, Clancy, who has no children, had considered himself in favor of abortion rights. "And right now I still feel that I am pro-choice," he said. "But I think once a girl is pregnant, the choice is made. This made a pro-lifer out of me."
As for those who've used the Baby Samuel photo, Vanderbilt University itself has gotten a good deal of mileage out of it.

Then there's this 1999 Life Magazine-award-winning photo by Max Aguilera-Hellweg, of yet-to-be-born baby Sarah Marie Switzer, whose arm is being lifted from her mother's open uterus by the same Dr. Joseph Bruner. A closeup of the photo and the story of the surgery and more on Dr. Bruner are found here, in this reprint of the LIFE Magazine article. In this surgery, the article says, "Brunen [sic] reached down and lifted Sarah Marie's hand out of the uterus."

Perhaps Bruner did reach over and lift Baby Samuel's hand out. If so, pro-life folks did everyone a disservice by embellishing or adding to the story aspects that weren't true.

But very young human infants, born and unborn apparently, do grasp adult fingers upon contact. Encyclopedia of Childhood and Adolescence cites the definition of this neonatal reflex:

The palmar grasp reflex is characterized by the grasping of an object that is placed crosswise on the palm of a newborn infant, or neonate. Like the other neonatal reflexes, it is a sign of normal neurological development. Immediately following birth, the hand grip of this reflex is strong enough to support the baby's weight. Within a few hours, this strength will begin to wane, and the reflex usually fades completely after three to four months... Neonatal reflexes are...not learned or developed through experience [and...] are present at birth.
And as this and 4D ultrasounds are showing increasingly, neonatal reflexes are present before birth as well.

Anyone who's experienced this knows that tiny newborn fists can really grip. At least one photo shows this, in my opinion and apparently in Dr. Bruner's opinion and the parents' as well. And the baby apparently wasn't anesthetized too much to move its own arm or respond to Bruner's touch.

Regardless, I think that the nurse's reply to photographer Clancy when he saw the child reach out, says it best:

Oh. They do that all the time.


Cross-posted with original article on After Abortion.

1 Comment

I have posted a video of fetal surgery on my blog at Life Training Institute (http://lti-blog.blogspot.com/2007/04/fetal-surgery-on-video-serge.html).
There is no evidence that a fetus under anesthesia could reach up and grab a physician. Nevertheless, viewing a second trimester child in the womb is simply incredible.

**** POST AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks for this link! This may be true, at this point at least (even your comment implies evidence may yet be "found"), but there's no evidence we have available to the public either that points to exactly how anesthetized the baby was at that point in the surgery (I believe it did say they were about to close up? Correct me if I'm wrong). And while it's probably true Samuel didn't reach up and grab the doctor's finger, he did appear to respond to touch and at least reflexively make a fist around or on top of the doctor's fingertip as best he could. The doctor did originally say he "reach[ed] out and [took] someone's hand."




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