Beliefs Culture

DEATH AND DYING: Long before Kevorkian, Chicago doctor fueled death debate

c. 1996 Religion News Service

ANN ARBOR, Mich. _ Long before Jack Kevorkian helped his first patient die and even before his birth, another American doctor galvanized debate about physician-assisted deaths.

In 1915, Chicago surgeon Harry Haiselden held a news conference to announce his refusal to operate to save a 4-day-old baby’s life. Haiselden withheld life-saving treatment from at least five more infants with defects the next three years, alerting the news media each time.

His actions made top headlines _ earning editorial endorsements from some newspapers and criticism from others. And they led to a silent movie, “The Black Stork,” which played in theaters for 26 years.

“You have two people who were attacked as much for their public efforts as for their euthanasia,” said Martin Pernick, a University of Michigan medical historian who writes about Haiselden in his new book, “The Black Stork”(Oxford University Press).

“But neither were seeking the limelight for their own glorification. … They saw themselves as provocateurs.”

In his book, Pernick says that despite recent attention given to Kevorkian and his 31 assisted suicides since 1990, Americans have forgotten that euthanasia has been going on in this country for decades.

The faded memory is partly because of the news media’s role in deciding what information is appropriate for public consumption, Pernick said.

Haiselden captured the spotlight in November 1915, when Anna Bollinger gave birth to a 7-pound boy in Chicago’s German-American Hospital. The baby had multiple abnormalities, including the absence of a neck and one ear.

Haiselden urged the parents to let the child die and they agreed. The surgeon revealed that he had secretly permitted several other infants to die during the previous decade, and he proceeded to make at least five more such deaths public through 1918.

The events were ripe for the budding journalism and film industries of the day. In addition to generating banner headlines in most newspapers, Haiselden teamed up with Hearst reporter Jack Lait to make the movie, “The Black Stork,” based loosely on the Bollinger case and starring Haiselden himself.

Although the movie continued to play in theaters until 1942, the news media stopped focusing attention on euthanasia in the 1920s, apparently after the public decided the issue should be discussed in private, Pernick said.

Haiselden, like Kevorkian, focused on reducing misery, saying death was merely the means to that end. But, Pernick writes, Haiselden also felt he was helping society get rid of “defectives” who were thought to inevitably lead lives of crime.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be gleaned from studying Haiselden is that medical decisions often involve subjective values of the day, Pernick said.

Many doctors in the 1910s, for example, considered tuberculosis and venereal disease _ even poverty and a condition known as “eroticism” _ to be hereditary diseases, he said.

As today’s Human Genome Project and other studies continue to unleash more genetic information and lead to genetic screening tests, it’s important to acknowledge such values, Pernick said.

“There are inevitable value judgments in simply calling something a disease,” he said. “You really can’t be totally objective in medicine.”