Six groups representing the handicapped yesterday declared their support for the government's new "Baby Doe" rule, intended to prevent doctors from letting grossly deformed and retarded infants die by withholding treatment or food.
Martin Gerry, a former head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division who has been hired as a lawyer by the coalition of groups, claimed that thousands of retarded but otherwise healthy infants are being killed in hospitals around the country because of the mistaken belief that "the lives of the handicapped have less value" than the lives of others.
He cited one study at Yale-New Haven Hospital that showed that 14 percent of all infant deaths resulted from intentional withdrawal of food or treatment. Gerry said the coalition does not oppose withholding treatment or food from terminally ill infants, only those who are handicapped. He said he did not know what proportion of the 14 percent in the study were handicapped, but said he believes that some probably were.
Arrayed on the opposite side of the issue are medical and health groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Asssociation of Children's Hospitals and the Children's Hospital National Medical Center, which filed suit to block the government's rule.
The coalition Gerry represents is seeking to intervene on the side of the government in that suit, which is scheduled for a hearing April 8 in U.S. District Court in Washington.
"We don't know that there are any documented cases whatsoever," said a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. She said that there is no evidence of wrongdoing at hospitals or of any policies that violate the law.
She said the academy supports the law, but finds this new enforcement rule an unnecessary burden to parents and doctors who are already facing difficult decisions about treatment.
The "Baby Doe" rule, an extension of a civil rights law, requires hospital delivery wards and nurseries to post government notices that failure to feed and treat handicapped infants is illegal. A hot-line number is provided so that complaints about violations of the rule may be called in.
The hot line is monitored by the Office of Civil Rights in the Health and Human Services Department. A spokesman said more than 200 calls have been received, although only two were substantive enough to be undergoing investigation. No details were available.
The "Baby Doe" rule was written after an infant in Bloomington, Ind., with Down's Syndrome and other medical problems was allowed by parents, doctors and a state court to starve to death. The infant was known as Baby Doe.