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Dr. Burton Blatt, Syracuse University
March 1984 Speech at Holiday Inn Airport, Pittsburgh, PA

Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six

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Well, I'm gonna look at the news a little bit, and then I'm going to give you the formal part of my talk for the morning.

This is a letter that the bus company sent to the superintendent of our local schools a few weeks ago. "On October 14th and October 17th, our Rome deaf school bus, that's Rome, New York, had severe discipline problems with Michael Daily and Alisa Schaefer, both of Syracuse. Neither would listen to the driver or aide to stop tormenting other children." Well, deaf children don't listen.

Last week's New York Review of Books lead article, lead article Reagan and Baby Doe. It's a review of a book written by a couple, a review of a book written by a couple who made the decision that the Indiana parents made to terminate the life of their newborn.

And the reviewers agreed with the couple who wrote the book. They said the parents have this right. It's the parents who should determine whether the newborn with an anomaly should live or die. I'm gonna get to the details of these types of cases in a little while.

March 13th, a couple weeks ago, the New York Times the editorial on the new Catholic Bishop in New York, "Bishop John O'Connor, the next leader of New York's Catholic Church, Bishop John J. O'Connor has telegraphed ahead some theological and political views with highly offensive implications."

Now, look, the New York Times is the paper of record, and I read it every day, not only because it's the paper of record and it's a pretty swanky thing to do, but as a matter of fact, it happens to be the best paper in the world, I think, and I think if you want to learn something about mental retardation, you learn more about mental retardation in the New York Times than in the American Journal on Mental Deficiency, day in, day out. It's a good newspaper.

And I have a new bishop in New York and the opening salvo of the New York Times is "Bishop, welcome to New York, you've said some offensive and disgusting things." Now the Times usually doesn't do that, at least not until the person has been in the city for at least a week or two.

Now, what were they so offended by? And what I'm about to say may even offend some of you. But I'm gonna take that chance because there's a point, an important point that has to be made that the Times missed and if some of you miss it, so be it.

Here's what they didn't like about what the Bishop said, quote "I always compare the killing of 4,000 babies a day in the United States, unborn babies, with the Holocaust. Now Hitler tried to solve a problem, the Jewish question, so kill them, shove them into ovens, burn them. Well, we claim that unborn babies are a problem, so kill them. To me, it's really precisely the same."

Now, I don't want to debate with you the question of abortion. I really don't. And as I was saying to my friends who picked me up at the airport, I've learned that that's a question where on issues where… where we could be friends and work together, we become enemies because of the abortion issue.

You don't know what I think about it, I don't know what you think about it, and I'd just as soon leave it that way. It happens to be an issue that's mixed in with religious questions and other kinds of questions, and I know people who are against Baby Doe are for or against abortion, are for Baby Doe, for or against abortion, and the whole thing gets all mixed up.

That's not the point I'm getting at. What this Bishop was saying is that in principle, in principle abortion when it's decided, it's decided the same way that Hitler decided to kill the Jews and the Poles and the Gypsies and the homosexuals.

And the parent of Baby Jane decided that their child should live. I'm quoting the parent of Baby Jane Doe from Time magazine of a few weeks ago. "Baby Jane's parents decided that hers would not be a life worth living." Hitler decided in his own words, this is what he said, "A life devoid of value is not worth living."

That was the rationale for killing the Jews, the 300,000 mentally retarded people he killed, the homosexuals, the Gypsies, the Poles, the Slavs, the thirteen million people he killed were killed on the rationale that a life devoid of value is not worth continuing and we have decided that those lives are devoid of value.

In principle when a life is taken by a society legally, legally… it's taken for the very same reasons that Hitler took those thirteen million lives. And the only way a society can guarantee that no lives will be taken is to articulate another principle. That no life is devoid of value, no life, and no society and no human being has the right to determine the value of another human being. That's the only way you'll guarantee the lives of the Baby Does of the world and the Baby Janes and those old people. That's the only way.

But when the society, when the culture, when the Governor of Colorado, when the courts, when parents are given the right to determine what life has value and what life doesn't have value, nobody is safe.

The question is, does a parent own their children? Does a parent have the right to decide whether a newborn should live or die? I've been thinking about that one. Even if parents were by law owners of children, they might not even then have the right to determine whether the child lives or dies.

Now, for example, parents or individuals own homes. How many of you own a home, your own home? Raise your hand. You own your own house, all right. You don't have the right to burn your house down. I mean, you own it, lock, stock, and barrel, the bank doesn't own a nickel of your house. You try to burn your house down, you go to jail. Why? You threaten the safety of the community. You threaten the community.

So because you have property does not mean you can destroy it. You own a dog, you're not allowed to kill your dog. Did you know you're not allowed to kill your dog? You try to kill your dog and the authorities catch you, they're going to be very, very angry with you. They might even put you in jail for a few hours. How come you can knock off your own kid then? Lot of people think you can, believe it or not.

Now Gallup does this poll every few weeks on important issues of the day. A few weeks ago he did a poll on the Baby Doe question. That's a question that's really sweeping America. And so here's what he asked the people. "When a badly deformed baby who could live only a few years was born in a Midwest city, the parents asked the doctor not to keep the baby alive. Would you take the same position as the parents did or not?"

Well, on the national survey that Gallup did a few weeks ago on that question, 43% of the people said, yes they would. They'd go right along with Mr. and Mrs. Baby Doe, 40% said no, they wouldn't, and 17% had no opinion. No matter what the question is, 17% don't have an opinion. "What's your name?" "I don't have an opinion on that."

There weren't big differences between men and women on this question. The biggest differences were between those who were educated and those who weren't educated. And guess what? The educated ones, like with college degrees, 54% said, yeah they'd go along with Mr. and Mrs. Baby Doe, and 33% said no they wouldn't. But the high school graduates, 38% would go along with Mr. and Mrs. Baby Doe and 43% said no, they wouldn't.

So, how do you create a nation that's more generous, that's more caring, that truly, not only believes but lives by the idea that we are our brothers' keepers? Do we educate them? Hmm.

Mr. Gallup said by implication, maybe not. And if you look at German history of the 20th century, you'd say maybe not too. That German culture during the 1930s was about as well educated as any in the world, had as many poets and philosophers, theologians as any culture. That didn't stop them. That didn't stop them.

In a recent issue of Pediatrics magazine, "Early Management and Decision Making for the Treatment of Spina Bifida," there is a formula presented developed by a scholar name of Shaw on the quality of life: QL = NE x (H + S). And what you do is plug in this formula. QL is the quality of life, NE represents the patient's natural endowment both physical and intellectual, H is the contribution from home and family, S is the contribution to society.

You plug in all of these numbers on the formula, and you determine whether the baby lives or dies. That's right, plug in a formula. And that's where you get the quality of life, so you know whether the baby should live or die.

Audio: 1984 Speech National AAMD
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A Personal Statement About Burton Blatt – Bob Laux
Burton Blatt: Leader, Teacher, Friend – Hank Bersani

Burton Blatt Bio

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