Tomorrow's Children Highlights
Evidence Highlights Index, 1870 - 1930

The Black Stork Movie Stills

Excerpt from Tomorrow's Children: Dialogue with Martin S. Pernick.

The movie stills to the right are scenes from The Black Stork, the film described in the following interview.

LAURIE BLOCK: Euphemisms are polite ways of saying things we find unpleasant or difficult, and prenatal diagnoses is surrounded by them. We say we test fetuses because women want reassurance about their baby's health. We don't talk about our fears of disability. We describe selective abortion as preventing disease, when what is prevented is the possibility of ever living--well or badly-- with a condition. No other form of disease prevention eliminates the people who have the conditions.

Our ambivalence about disability goes very deep, and it's very old. A sensational news story from the first quarter of this century makes it apparent. But be warned, when you go this far back the rhetoric is very harsh. Marty Pernick is a medical historian.

MARTIN PERNICK: The story really began in November of 1915. Dr. Haiselden, a prominent young surgeon in Chicago, was called to attend an impaired newborn. Dr. Haiselden examined the baby, and decided to allow the baby to die. He called a friend of his, a reporter for William Randolph Hearst's Chicago-American. He told the reporter that he had had other cases in the past, that he had allowed to die quietly, but he now felt it was time to make this a public issue.

BLOCK: This controversy flourished when the eugenics movement was at the height of its power, then it was forgotten. Pernick has spent nearly 20 years slowly recovering the pieces.

PERNICK: In 1916, every American who read a newspaper knew who Harry Haiselden was, in the same way that they know who Dr. Jack Kevorkian is today.

BLOCK: Haiselden held press conferences. He invited photographers to take pictures of the mothers and their dying babies. He was on a crusade to get doctors to publicly admit that they too routinely withheld treatment from impaired newborns, and many did.

PERNICK: Haiselden and his supporters were torn between passionate expressions of sympathy and love, versus, in the next breath, expressing contempt, hatred, fear and loathing for those born with disabilities.

BLOCK: Haiselden, like many eugenicists, emphasized that the burdens of the disabled should not be imposed on the physically and mentally able.

PERNICK: The disabled were a menace, an evil stalking beast, that was going to devour society.

BLOCK: This was the moment when the authority of medicine was ascending. But doctors' claims far exceeded their understanding of the causes of many disabling conditions.

PERNICK: Haiselden was investigated three times by different legal authorities for allowing impaired newborns to die, and each time he was upheld. But he was expelled from the Chicago Medical Society for writing newspaper articles and making a movie.

BLOCK It was a melodrama based on Haiselden's real life cases, and Dr. Haiselden starred in it. Marty Pernick found this long forgotten relic in a New Jersey film collector's garage. Shortly after my children were born, he sent me there to see it. And it was the weirdest film I had ever seen. When I visited Marty at his home in Michigan, we looked at it together. The film is called The Black Stork .


PERNICK: We see Dr. Haiselden, a tall, rather handsome-looking guy, hair stylishly parted in the middle; he looks out the window, and we get a shot of what he is watching out the window. He sees a boy on crutches. "It's not the fault of the child, but someone is to blame."

BLOCK: Soon Haiselden attends the birth of a baby born with a serious problem. Supposedly, the father has "tainted blood"; this was a euphemism for veneral disease, at the time incurable and a leading cause of disabiling problems in newborns.

PERNICK: A newspaper headline, "THEY REFUSE TO OPERATE ON DEFECTIVE CHILD. If parents consent, Leffingwell baby, hopelessly defective, will die." You see the bedside scene. Haiselden is standing by with a tiny infant. stroking the infant's head.

BLOCK: It is hard to communicate how repellent this movie is. It was designed to be shown to theater going audiences, but watching it you want to wish it away. You don't want to own this aspect of the American experience.

PERNICK: We see a close-up of a very skinny, scrawny baby with its ribs showing, a wizened-looking face, legs and arms drawn up, a textbook picture of a baby born with congenital syphilis. The title reads, "There are times when saving a life is a greater crime than taking one."

BLOCK: Haiselden's movie, and his crusade, generated an outpouring of newspaper articles. Marty has tracked down more than four hundred of these published accounts, commentaries from the famous and the unknown. These are Haiselden's supporters:

READING: As a Christian and a Socialist, I hope the day of the parasite who eats his bread without earning it will soon pass whether he be mentally or physically incompetent or not. Dr. J. C. Howell

READING: If the child would be a helpless idiot, what purpose is served by keeping it alive. Kathleen Davis.

READING: Shortsighted are they who would unduly restrict the operation of what is one of Nature's greatest racial blessings--death. Charles Davenport, Carnegie Station for Experimental Evolution and the Eugenics Records Office

BLOCK: Haiselden's critics may not have reached the same conclusion but they used the same rhetoric:

READING: Physicians may thank God that we are not yet the licensed executioners of the unfit for the community. Dr. Walsh

READING:It is not for me to decide whether a child should be put to death. If it is a defective, it should be treated as such, and be taught all it can learn. Jane Adams, Hull House.

PERNICK: One of the hardest things to do in reconstructing the history of attitudes towards people with disabilities is to understand the changing language. In any newspaper or medical journal of 1915, 1916 you would see the term defective, idiot, imbecile. We can see clearly, there were incredible value judgments being made but it's important to remember that the people coining and using those terms didn't see it that way. They didn't see the hostility.

BLOCK: The contempt.

PERNICK: The contempt. They didn't see the subjectivity. Progressive Americans were convinced that scientists, physicians, could make objective, technically valid determinations, of who should live, who should die. They believed, probably more strongly than any group of Americans before or since that science was capable of making objectively true judgements. And so they could, in the same breath, as Clarence Darrow said, "chloroform unfit children, show them the same mercy that we show beasts that are no longer fit to live."

BLOCK: When Haiselden states his case in his movie The Black Stork, he doesn't invoke science and objectivity, he looks to the divine order ...

PERNICK: "It is the will of God that this baby be born a defective, and without the meddling of surgery, it is the will of God that the child die. "

BLOCK: The film gets up close and personal with the distraught mother. She's been left alone to decide what to do, and she has a dream, a vision of the child's imagined future. As a boy he's shunned, and accused of being a jinx. He grows up and turns to vice. He becomes a derelict, a criminal, and eventually the father of a brood of degenerate children. At last, frantic and crazed, he rushes into a private club, looking for revenge upon the doctor who saved his life as an infant. .

PERNICK: Clearly wild-eyed he points to his hunched back. "You are the man who condemned me to this life of torture and shame. See what you have saved me for? Now you'll pay." He pulls out a gun. The doctor rises to protest. A cloud of smoke. He shoots.

BLOCK: This film argues that crime, degeneracy, and financial ruin are the inevitable result of all disability-- that anger, bitterness, and envy are the emotional core of a disabled person's life. Terrified of this prospect, the mother consents to let the child die. Haiselden stands looking contented over the sick baby.

PERNICK: We see a faint image of Jesus appearing superimposed in the background, and the baby's soul leaps out of its body, into the arms of the waiting Jesus.


BLOCK: Do you see any parallels or implications for the present? Is there any moral to this story?

PERNICK: I think the most important thing about this whole story is that Americans died because their doctors felt they were genetically unfit to live. Value judgments have always been central parts of defining disease, deciding what to do about it. It wasn't simply that, in Dr. Haiselden's day, bad science was corrupted by allowing values in. Dr. Haiselden and his supporters believed passionately in objectivity but in looking back at then, we can see so clearly, the way in which their response to disease was shaped by their values. Trying to be purely objective won't keep out values. It will simply guarantee that whatever values we use will be unexamined, and thereby, covert and not capable of being challenged.

RealAudio: Marty Pernick & Laurie - Block on The Black Stork
A conversation with Martin Pernick about The Black Stork

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