Montana Viewpoint©


January 19, 2009

January 22nd marks the anniversary of one of the most continuingly controversial decisions of the United States Supreme Court, Roe v Wade, which struck down a Texas law prohibiting abortion. There will be demonstrations supporting the decision and opposing the decision as there have been each year since 1973. It seems like an appropriate time to tell a story that has always given me food for thought. It is a true story.

In 1971, two years before Roe v Wade, I was working at a large state home for the developmentally disabled. I had just gotten my college degree in Physiological Psychology, and had been hired to work on a laboratory experiment to find out if a person’s intelligence could be determined from electrical activity in his/her brain. Basically we took a look at how the electrons jumped around when a person had a bright light flashed in her face. I ran a computer that was programmed with toggle switches and had about as much power as one of today’s hand held calculators, but it was hot stuff then.

The reason the experiment was being conducted was to see if there was some way to test the intelligence of people who could not speak, read, or write, which intelligence tests pretty much relied on. This group ran from newborn babies to adults with birth defects which limited their verbal abilities.

People being tested had an electrode placed on the back of their heads about half an inch above that little bump just above the spine, which is where the part of the brain that deals with vision is. They were placed in a small darkened room with an attendant, if needed, and watched a strobe light flash 50 times. The computer took the electrical activity and displayed the electrical pattern that occurred after the flash.

On occasion a co-worker and I would go onto various wards to look for appropriate subjects. If you have never been in a home for the severely developmentally disabled, it is an eye opener; there is not much pretty about it. These are people who have been committed by their parents or by the state because they cannot care for themselves in any way shape or form, and are too much for their parents to handle. There were an awful lot of sad stories there; one of a grandmother who cared for her grandson until he got too big for her to lift. She was a poor woman but every week she took a 100 mile bus trip to visit him. She did that until she could no longer get around.

Few of the patients could talk, and most were confined to beds because they couldn’t walk, either. Almost all of them were malformed, some hideously; hydrocephalics with heads as big as watermelons, and anancephalics with very, very small heads and practically no brain—literally. One day I was in the nursery scouting the possibilities when I heard a very small voice repeat sounds over and over, which was not unusual; but after a number of repetitions I realized that it was repeating words.

Real words, in fact, a sentence: “Hello, my name is Mary.” This was all wrong, nobody in the nursery should be capable of speech; except someone was. When we found her, we saw a two-year-old little girl with syndactylism, or “flipper fingers,” where two or more fingers are joined together; she also had a strangely elongated face topped with tousled blond hair and was wearing a big smile. She was pretty, by the standards of that place, which certainly gave you a new benchmark for “pretty.” We went into her records and found that she had been committed at birth by her father on the advice of the delivering physician. The doctor had told him that Mary was severely malformed and would also be severely retarded. Her mother never saw the child, and I suspect was told that it was stillborn.

Aside from being malformed, Mary was normal in every aspect—and smart. We didn’t need a test to tell us that. Here was a baby who had learned to talk by listening to the nurses. We contacted the father, who was a man of means and influence, to tell him what we thought was good news. He was furious, and told us never to contact him again. What was done was done. Well, there was no way that Mary should stay at the hospital, and every reason that she should leave because institutionalized children, normal or not, develop autistic behavior.

We found a way to get Mary into a foster home, and had her come back from time to time for tests. The last time I saw Mary she was five years old and in a little wheelchair. And, most wonderful, she had been adopted by her foster parents. She was a happy little kid, and a very lucky one.

Whenever I think of Mary, I think of another girl we used to test. I don’t remember her name, but I can never forget what she looked like. She had black hair and her facial features were close enough to normal, but she could not speak and was in a constant state of terror. This terror had caused her to tense her muscles in such a way that she had folded herself in half, backwards, with the back of her head touching the back of her heels. She was 21 years old. She had a lifetime of terror behind her, and a lifetime of terror in front of her.

Often, when I think of abortion and the arguments for it or against it, I think of these two people, and what their fates might have been, one way or the other. It’s never simple, is it?

Montana Viewpoint© is carried by 20 Montana weekly newspapers, including those in Helena and Billings, with a combined circulation of over 60,000.

Jim Elliott is a former state senator from Trout Creek. He served in the Montana House 1989 to 1996 and the Montana Senate from 2001 to 2008. Elliott has distributed his opinion column statewide since 1992. There is no charge for publication.