Today Baby Doe Died

Baby Doe gravestoneToday was the day in 1982 when Baby Doe died in a maternity ward in a hospital in Indiana. He died because his doctor advised his parents that they could “do nothing.”

As covered in this post, Baby Doe was a child born in Bloomington, Indiana. He was born with a disconnected esophagus–a condition that at that time could be successfully repaired 90% of the time. But his doctor, Walter Owens, advised the baby’s parents to not consent to surgery and instead let him die. He advised them:

That it would still be a mongoloid, a Down’s syndrome child with all the problems that even the best of them have.  That they did have another alternative which was to do nothing.  In which case the child [would] probably live only a matter of several days and would die of pneumonia probably . . . . Some of these children . . . are mere blobs.

That was how Dr. Owens recounted the advise he gave Baby Doe’s parents in sworn testimony to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Dr. Owens, himself, “had little experience with mental retardation, but he had a niece with a retarded child, and it seemed to be his view (though not necessarily his niece’s) that this had ruined his niece’s life.”

Two other doctors had advised to transfer the child to a hospital in Indianapolis for surgery. Dr. Owens reminded the parents that the surgery “could do nothing about the Down’s [sic] syndrome. *** ‘However, he informed the parents, ‘you do have an alternative,’” advising they could refuse consent for the surgery.  Regarding his niece’s child with intellectual disabilities:

Obviously this has colored my thinking on the survival of such children.  I believe there are things that are worse than having a child die.  And one of them is that it might live.

Jeffrey Lyon, a reporter, investigated the case and wrote a book entitled Playing God in the Nursery. From his interviews and investigation of medical records, he described Baby Doe’s very short life. By the fourth day, the baby boy

was crying from hunger, and his lips were parched from dehydration.  His ribs were sticking out, the result of respiratory strain caused by the tracheoesophageal fistula.  That afternoon, when the stomach acid started corroding his lungs, he had begun to spit blood.

Families petitioned to adopt Baby Doe and a lawsuit was brought to require medical care be provided. Dr. Owens testified in defense of his advice to let the baby die and other physicians testified that medical care should be provided. The court found:

Mr. & Mrs. Doe, after having been fully informed of the opinions of two sets of physicians have the right to choose a medically recommended course of treatment for their child in the present circumstances.

The court’s decision was concurred with by a Child Protection Committee hearing. A subsequent hearing was held to declare the child neglected under state law, but:

the Court finds that the State has failed to show that this child’s physical or mental condition is seriously impaired or seriously endangered as a result of the inability, refusal, or neglect of his parents to supply the child with necessary food and medical care.

[Let that sink in for a moment].

The Indiana Court of Appeals denied an immediate hearing to review the decision and the Indiana Supreme Court denied a petition for emergency relief to order medical treatment.

Baby Doe died six days after he was born in 1982 on today, April 15. Cause of death:

chemical pneumonia, due to the regurgitation of his own stomach acid.

The gross injustice throughout the Baby Doe case is not something to be forgotten.

Update: In October 2014, I was able to bring a measure of justice, however small, to the town where Baby Doe was born and died, as relayed in this post.


  1. Am reading this story in bed with eyes full of tears. How anyone, a Dr or not can allow a baby to just lay there and die like this will haunt me for life. I feel the need to go watch my two yr old son with DS sleeping n his cot and whisper in his ear that no onr will ever hurt him in any way, ever!!! Heartbreaking!

  2. Laurie Larson says:

    Absolutely appalling and heartbreaking. Luckily in our situation (in 1991) it was much different although I really shudder to think what could have happened if we as his parents didn’t do our research. When my son was born I was given the diagnosis as I lay on the delivery table. We knew nothing about DS. Over the next day (in hospital) I could not get him to feed and he was spitting up bile. The Dr. did not know why and didn’t seem overly concerned. My husband checked the only resource we had at hand (this was prior to the internet) which was the Readers Digest Medical Dictionary (do not use this as a resource for good info btw!!). However, it did explain the common occurrence of duodenal atresia at birth. I brought this to the attention of our Dr. and he said he would check into it. He did, it was confirmed and he was immediately airlifted to a hospital equipped to do the surgery. He had the surgery at 4 days old and the team at that hospital was absolutely wonderful! They also put us in touch with a family who had a child with DS and that was much appreciated. It wasn’t that our ob/gyn was biased against babies with DS but he was uninformed and it could have been disastrous.

  3. This story brings tears to my eyes, that this horrible event happened to a baby, is criminal. The parents, the ignorant doctor, it all makes my heart hurt. I feel the pain not only as sibling to a wonderful young girl with DS, but as a nurse and a healthcare provider. I can’t imagine standing by and watching a baby die in such a horrific manner

  4. Its hard to believe we live in such a barbaric nation.

  5. totally heartbreaking and barbaric that poor BEAUTIFUL baby R.I.P angel xxx

  6. mom2many says:

    So unbelievably sick I almost don’t know what to say. My first thought was that I hope this doctor suffers a horrible painful and lonely death. But that’s not very Christian of me. I still thought it though. Sigh.

  7. Jolie Harris says:

    We have adopted four children over the past four years with Down Syndrome after having three biological children. They are the most amazing, sweet, kind, funny, brave, and compassionate children I have ever known. To have been abandoned and left in their home country with no support system for children with special needs and no therapies is just so sad to me. I look at my beautiful blessings and I think “if your bio mom had any idea just how wonderful you are she would give anything to have you with her”. Sadly our children’s bio mother’s uneducated decisions because of doctors like this man and because of their culture’s views towards people with disabilities made them feel like there was no other choice. With time I hope all people recognize the contribution people with DS make to the world but until then we need people who are willing to stand up for these parents who are still being offered abortions in every corner of the world, including the United Sates, as soon as it is discovered that the child they are carrying has DS. Only 2% of women who are pregnant with babies who are diagnosed prenatally will carry that child to term. So our beautiful children with DS are already an endangered species! If you believe having a child with a mental handicap is the worst thing that could ever happen to you I would suggest talking to a family of a three year old with DS. I think you will hear differently. It might just be the best thing that ever happens to you. And this couple and this doctor in this story should have been prosecuted criminally. I have one child that needed open heart surgery and he did wonderful. And I have one baby now who is terminally ill with a heart defect that was not repaired in China. We have no idea how long we will have her but we will treasure each day that we have her! Starving a baby to death is horrific.

    • I think what they allowed to happen to this child is barbaric, that being said, not everyone with a DS child has the same experience that you’ve had. I know a DS child that is 5 years old who is non verbal and is still in diapers. I think we can pass judgment in this extremely cruel, but rare, case. I don’t believe we should condemn someone for knowing their own limitations and not wanting to bring a DS child into the world.

      • This post deals with the postnatal killing of a newborn, not abortion. I think we agree, as all reasonable people would, that killing a newborn is condemnable.

      • If people do their research, (we live in a world where the internet is our best/worst enemy) they will see that being in diapers and non verbal at 5 with a DS diagnosis is not all together un heard of. AND does not mean they will not be potty trained and/or talk. My son is 2, DS, non verbal and in a diaper. Everything checks out. He will, one day talk, he was walking at 18 months. Every child develops differently, rather it be typical or have a disability, this does not make their lives less. The best gift a baby will ever receive is life from their mommies, the ones that don’t allow that should not have children. I hope this person was never able to have another child. Because if human life is to be treated like this by her, she don’t deserve any child.

  8. I read that article with tears in my eyes, I can’t imagine the pain that poor baby must have gone through :-(, I found out at 15 weeks gestation that my baby would have ds , I was offered termination all through my pregnancy I was disgusted ! I was determined to keep him and I’m so glad I did, I love him so so much he’s amazing ,funny and loving! Shame on those doctors that are ignorant like that!

    • Emma–Your experience of being offered termination throughout is representative of the results of the study covered at this post finding many moms with a prenatal diagnosis having a negative experience with their medical provider due to the physicians being insistent on terminating the pregnancy.

    • I was 45 when I got pregnant with my now 2 year old. 46 when I had him. At 22weeks I found out that the odds were 1-100 that he would be born with DS. Without confirmation, the geneticist offered me an amnio (invasive test) so that I could make an informed decision on rather to abort or not. I opted out of that. No matter what, abortion would never be an option. The geneticist was very rude after that. He decided to send me to the children’s hospital to have a complete scan of his heart as they could not get that on an ultrasound. So I did. They found 2 holes in his heart. I asked if this proved DS. The doc said no, kids are born all the time with a “murmur” worst case scenario, heart surgery at 1, best case, they could close before he is born. That was it for the discussions on DS. I did join some groups and start reading about it, just in case to be prepared but, I never gave it another thought, because ultimately, it did not matter. He was born at 39 weeks, brought with him DS. But, the holes in his heart had completely closed. He is the sweetest, most loving, stubborn, spoiled little guy. I absolutely adore him and he is my life. These birth parents and doctors are horrible and deserve nothing less than to rot.

  9. Nicola strandberg says:

    Im just heart broken, The thought that any Child could be treated in this Way, My beatifull boy has DS, he is the most Amazing, determined, brave little guy, I am the luckiest mummy in the whole world, and so proud of My amazing boy.

  10. This story broke my heart….. It made me angry too… Angry enough that I did share this post on my blog as well. I pray to God that the doctor who allowed this poor child to suffer felt regret and guilt for this! There is so much more I could say…..

  11. Our daughter, who we adopted and knew before birth had Ds was born without her esophagus. Luckily she was at one of the top children’s hospital in the nation where she had surgery to repair this and other digestive problems. She will be 17 in July. She is our pure joy. So sad that still to this day the medical professionals can still give such terrible information to their patients and families.


  13. I just can’t even say how furious this makes me. Gospel artist Steve Taylor did a song about this in the 80’s. It’s a great song but almost impossible to listen to because of the subject matter.


  1. […] so, Baby Doe, as he became known in the national media, died because his parents withheld care to him on the […]

  2. […] to death because they had pneumonia is horrifying, but not altogether surprising. There was also the Baby Doe case, where a baby with Down syndrome was allowed to be killed by starving him to death with his […]

  3. […] Today Baby Doe Died: Baby Doe was a baby boy born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1982 whose esophagus was not connected to his stomach. Surgery could repair this, but he never received the surgery. This was because Baby Doe was also born with Down syndrome. His delivering physician, Dr. Walter Owens, advised Baby Doe’s parents that even if they repaired their son’s digestive tract, he would “still be a mongoloid.” Dr. Owens recommend that the parents withhold care from their son. Baby Doe languished for six days in a nursery in a hospital, until dying a very painful death. The injustice of this case resonated with readers: the post was shared over 2,000 times on Facebook. […]

  4. […] Contemplating his provocative comments, I remember thinking back to the concept of “ballastexistenzen” and a case of Baby Doe [] […]

  5. […] Indiana, legally starved to death in a hospital at the behest of his parents, because he had Down syndrome? (No, I thought […]

  6. […] the same week that thirty years ago a doctor advised the parents of Baby Doe to let him die because he had Down syndrome, a noted bioethicist said that some babies should […]

  7. […] She was born with the same conditions as “Baby Doe” in this euthanasia case.  […]

  8. […] with a disconnected esophagus. The child became referred to as he was in court documents as “Baby Doe.” While the surgery to reconnect the esophagus was one with over a 90% success rate and […]

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