Parents denied right to donate dying baby's organs

March 28, 1992|By Mike Clary | Mike Clary,Los Angeles Times

MIAMI -- The wishes of a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., couple to donate the organs of their infant daughter born without a brain were thwarted yesterday when an appeals court refused to intervene in a case in which it was being asked to redefine the distinction between life and death.

The three-judge panel denied without comment a request for an emergency order that would have allowed doctors to remove vital organs from 6-day-old Theresa Ann Pearson.

The 4-pound infant was born last Saturday with a rare condition called anencephaly, in which most of the skull is missing and the brain is no more than the nub of the stem. But that bit of brain is enough to control breathing and heartbeat, and as of late yesterday the tiny infant remained alive without mechanical support. Although the baby has defied the odds by surviving beyond a few minutes, she was expected to die at any moment.

To her parents, Laura Campo and Justin Pearson, the baby is already dead. They want to donate the baby's healthy organs to other children in need of kidneys, liver, heart, eyes, even lungs.

"She has no life," Ms. Campo said. "She has no skull. She has no brain. She can't see or smell or hear. There's nothing.

"It should be up to us to make these decisions."

But Circuit Court Judge Estella Moriarty said Thursday that the law decides. She ruled that a 1988 Florida statute does not allow a person to be declared dead while any part of the brain is functioning.

"I can't authorize someone to take your baby's life, however short, however unsatisfactory, to save another child," said the judge during a tearful hearing with the parents.

Judge Moriarty did say that doctors could remove organs from the baby as long as the operations did not kill her.

Walter Campbell Jr., the couple's attorney, yesterday asked the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in West Palm Beach to overrule Judge Moriarty and permit removal of any of the infant's organs.

"We are asking the court to accept a medical definition of death that includes anencephalic children and allow these parents to do what they feel is best for their child and other children," Mr. Campbell said.

The court refused.

The birth of Theresa Ann has thrust her parents, described as "hard-working, middle-class people" by their attorney, into the national spotlight.

Ms. Campo is a waitress at a restaurant called the Feedbag. Mr. Pearson is an asphalt worker. Both are 30 years old. They have two healthy children, aged 3 and 4, and Ms. Campo also has a 13-year-old son from a previous marriage.

Ms. Campo and Mr. Pearson learned that their baby was anencephalic four weeks before her birth. Doctors contacted the organ donor program at the University of Miami on behalf of the couple.

"I love kids as much as anybody," Ms. Campo told Judge Moriarty. "If my kid can help another baby live, then that is what we want to do."

But Judge Moriarty said that she was bound by the law. "Death is a fact," said the judge, "not an opinion."

Les Olson, director of organ procurement for the University of Miami, said that a nationwide computer search yesterday morning showed no matches for Theresa Ann's kidney and that only the baby's corneas were likely to be viable for transplants. As the baby slowly dies, he said, so too would her organs.

Mr. Campbell argues that the law that defines death should be changed "so that anencephalic children are declared dead when born."

"I know, you look at the pictures and see a child. But there is no skull. Remove the gauze cap, and you look right into the brain stem. The child feels nothing, and we want the court to recognize that," he said.

He said that he would consult with the parents on whether to take the fight to a higher court.

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