The Case of the Cyclops Child: A Moral Quandary

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By: Kimberly Shen

Edited by: Arianna Winchester

“Over the years that followed, I found myself thinking from time to time of that picture, my hand over the baby’s mouth. I knew then, and I still think now, that the right thing to do would have been to kill that baby.”

These were the words that Dr. Frederic Neuman said when he reflected on his disturbing experience with who he called “the Cyclops Child.” Cyclopia is an extremely rare type of birth defect that appears when the embryonic forebrain fails to divide the orbits of the eyes. As a result, infants born with this disorder are generally missing an eye and a nose. During normal embryonic development, a structure called the neural tube develops into the nervous system. However, an embryo with cyclopia, has defects in their neural tube, so the brain, eyes, nose, and mouth fail to develop normally.

Around 1960, Dr. Neuman, then a medical intern, helped deliver a baby with cyclopia at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. Many years later, Dr. Neuman recalled the experience of seeing the child born with one eye in the middle of its forehead. Because the infant’s esophagus never separated from its trachea and led to its lungs instead of its stomach, the child was also unable to eat.

Upon seeing the extremely deformed infant, the team of doctors that Dr. Neuman worked with decided not to tell the parents that their child was born with such a birth defect. Instead, they falsely informed the parents that their child had died at birth.

Development of Cyclopia fetus
Development of Cyclopia fetus

Because infants with this disorder generally die soon after birth, the doctors and nurses expected this infant to die shortly. They abandoned the baby in the back of the hospital nursery and left the infant to starve. To their surprise, the baby lived for thirteen days. What makes this story even more disturbing was that an operational procedure was needlessly practiced on the dying infant. Under the orders of his senior resident, Dr. Neuman performed a finger amputation procedure on the infant without anesthesia. When he recounted this experience later, he recalled his horror upon realizing that the child could actually feel pain. He recalls that, “when [he started amputating the finger], it screamed…[his] hands began to shake. The kid was in pain. It could feel pain.” He regrets his actions, saying, “I should’ve realized that, but somehow I did not. It was because the baby did not really look like a baby.”

When the baby passed away, Dr. Neuman recalled experiencing a combination of sadness and relief, saying that, “It was awful for the child. It’s hard to imagine a child that is not comforted when it is picked up. You can’t feed it when it’s hungry. You can’t do anything for it.”

Dr. Neuman’s chilling story has raised many ethical questions both inside and outside the medical field. Many of Dr. Neuman’s strongest critics include members of the disabled community, for they strongly believe that the hospital staff had no right to decide whether or not to let the baby die. In response, Dr. Neuman stated that he recognizes that this is an extremely controversial issue for the disabled community due to their own experiences.

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