Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On Urban Half-Legends and Religious Belief - the Samuel Armas story

Three days ago, True Discernment quoted from a February 22nd LifeSiteNews article:

In 2005 the world was horrified when it was revealed that in the Netherlands doctors were not only openly admitting that they had killed disabled newborn infants, but that the medical institution was actively promoting child euthanasia through the so-called Groningen Protocol.

A specific example was given:

[People] expressed their disgust that many of the children who were being euthanized by Dutch doctors were children with Spina Bifida, a condition with which many people have lived well into adulthood and had fulfilling lives.

The Spina Bifida Association has more information on the three types of spina bifida:


Often called hidden Spina Bifida, the spinal cord and the nerves are usually normal and there is no opening on the back. In this relatively harmless form of Spina Bifida, there is a small defect or gap in a few of the small bones (vertebrae) that make up the spine.

There may be no motor or sensory impairments evident at birth. Subtle, progressive neurologic deterioration often becomes evident in later childhood or adulthood.

In many instances, Spina Bifida Occulta is so mild that there is no disturbance of spinal function at all. Occulta can be diagnosed at any age.


The protective coatings (meninges) come through the open part of the spine like a sac that is pushed out. Cerebrospinal fluid is in the sac and there is usually no nerve damage. Individuals may suffer minor disabilities. Additional problems can develop later in life.


This form of Spina Bifida occurs when the meninges (protective covering of the spinal cord) and spinal nerves come through the open part of the spine. This is the most serious type of Spina Bifida, which causes nerve damage and more severe disabilities.

Well, this ties into an email that I saw yesterday. I didn't receive it myself, but the email went something like this.

Read before you open the picture!

A picture began circulating in November. It should be "The Picture of the Year," or perhaps, "Picture of the Decade." The picture is that of a 21-week-old unborn baby named Samuel Alexander Armas, who is being operated on by a surgeon named Joseph Bruner. The baby was diagnosed with spina bifida and would not survive if removed from his mother's womb. Little Samuel's mother, Julie Armas, is an obstetrics nurse in Atlanta. She knew of Dr. Bruner's remarkable surgical procedure. Practicing at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, he performs these special operations while the baby is still in the womb.

During the procedure, the doctor removes the uterus via C-section and makes a small incision to operate on the baby. During the surgery on little Samuel, the little guy reached his tiny, but fully developed, hand through the incision and firmly grasped the surgeon's finger. The photograph captures this amazing event with perfect clarity.

The editors titled the picture, "Hand of Hope." The text explaining the picture begins, "The tiny hand of 21-week-old foetus Samuel Alexander Armas emerges from the mother's uterus to grasp the finger of Dr. Joseph Bruner as if thanking the doctor for the gift of life. "Little Samuel's mother said they "wept for days" when they saw the picture. She said, "The photo reminds us my pregnancy isn't about disability or an illness, it's about a little person. "Now see the actual picture, and it is awesome...incredible. And hey, pass it on. The world needs to see this one!

Well, once I saw this, a ton of alerts went through my head:

  • My version (not the one above) included a statement saying that only one paper ran the story, but didn't bother to name the paper.

  • It talks about "picture of the year," but doesn't name the year in which the surgery occurred.

  • The request, usual in these types of things, to pass the message on.
So I immediately did some web searches on my phone for Samuel Alexander Armas, and discovered that the true story is, if anything, even more fascinating than the email version.

First off, as Wikipedia and snopes.com note, Samuel Alexander Armas is real, and the picture is real, and the story ran in several newspapers, most notably USA Today, so it wasn't exactly suppressed.

However, the interpretation of what is going on in the picture varies, depending upon whom you ask. Take photographer Michael Clancy:

As a doctor asked me what speed of film I was using, out of the corner of my eye I saw the uterus shake, but no one's hands were near it. It was shaking from within. Suddenly, an entire arm thrust out of the opening, then pulled back until just a little hand was showing. The doctor reached over and lifted the hand, which reacted and squeezed the doctor's finger. As if testing for strength, the doctor shook the tiny fist. Samuel held firm. I took the picture! Wow! It happened so fast that the nurse standing next to me asked, "What happened?" "The child reached out," I said. "Oh. They do that all the time," she responded.

However, Wikipedia quotes from a USA Today article in which Dr. Jospeph Bruner states something different:

"The baby did not reach out," Dr Bruner said. "The baby was anesthetized. The baby was not aware of what was going on."

Clancy has an answer for that. After documenting a war of pictures with LIFE magazine (two surgeries, Dr. Bruner in each of them), and accusations that Bruner's statement destroyed Clancy's career, Clancy states:

The one thing no one counted on was the people of the world. The people that have embraced, emailed, shared this picture with their friends and loved ones. The people kept this picture alive. The popularity of the picture and story propelled their publication in the June 9th, 2003 issue of Newsweek, four years after the picture was taken. What a great thing it was, to see pictures of Samuel at 3 1/2 years old and to read he liked bugs.

That issue of Newsweek was displayed, to show the picture of Samuel reaching out, during the Partial Birth Abortion debates on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and the House of Representatives.

September 25th, 2003, Samuel, his parents, and I testified before a Senate Committee about the surgery and the impact of the picture. Samuel actually answered questions from Senator Sam Brownback....

[I] stopped photojournalism in September 2003. I have become obsessed with proving to the world that I did capture the earliest interaction ever recorded.

But that's not the only story connected with this picture. A juicier story concerns the cable television network that refused to air the picture because they were afraid that it would be seized upon by the pro-life movement. Here's part of the story:

[The host] walked off his [cable network] show Saturday, charging that network executives were censoring him because they refused to let him show a picture of a fetus....

The showdown came hours before air time when...[the cable network] told [the host] he could not show a National Enquirer photo of a 21-week-old fetus. [The host], an ardent opponent of abortion, wanted to brandish the picture of a tiny hand reaching out from the womb to dramatize a baby's development at that stage. But [the network] decided that would be misleading because the tabloid photo dealt not with abortion but with an emergency operation on the fetus for spina bifida.

So which communist network tried to suppress a pro-life statement?

Fox News Channel.

The correspondent?

Matt Drudge.

Heck, this is better than any "pass it to your friends" email. Perhaps I should start a meme about this story.

Or not.

Incidentally, in my view the sedation or non-sedation of the fetus during the picture misses the point. Debate should more properly focus on whether the fetus should be considered a living being because of his characteristics, or whether the fetus should not be considered a living being because it could not exist independently of the mother at that stage.

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