OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Baby in the ditch

Wayne Mays, a former colleague at the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record and the president of Arkansas Right to Life, recently sent a copy of my feature story about an infant found in a Little Rock drainage ditch published in May 1983.

The story, which remains relevant today, created reactions across our state and prompted the organization to launch its annual Mary Rose Doe Award in tribute to that child and all victims of abortion.

Below is that story. I felt like sharing it today with the vast majority of our readers who've not read it.

The doctor pressed his scalpel against the soft skin of her upper chest. With a precise stroke, like thousands of others made over the years, he began the postmortem.

But this autopsy was more difficult, Before him on the stainless steel table lay the form of a slightly premature yet well-developed baby girl.

Found in a drainage ditch on April 28, the fetus had been aborted after nearly seven months in the womb. Because she had no identity, the pathologist and his staff called her Infant Doe.

Dr. Fahmy Malak, the state's chief medical examiner, had become calloused to the facts of death in his 30 years as a physician and pathologist. Besides the daily autopsies, he'd been born and raised in Egypt where suffering and death are commonplace.

This case, however, was painful to him. The brown-eyed baby with velvety ivory skin was just too new and fresh to be lifeless. There was no logic. And she reminded him of his two children who'd hugged him goodbye that morning.

"This was a beautiful little flower that will never hug anyone," he said. "She was a healthy, perfect little bud clipped before she could blossom."

Malak also talked about how difficult it is for him whenever he finds any child on his autopsy table.

This infant been brought to the State Crime Laboratory late the previous afternoon. An 8-year-old boy playing near his yard had discovered her wedged between two large rocks in a ditch that drains Cantrell Road.

Beer cans, paper sacks and garbage were scattered around her. Little Rock policeman Jim McDaniel, first on the scene, said it was among the worst sights he'd seen in 13 years on the force. "It really tore me up," he said. "I have two kids of my own."

McDaniel speculated she'd been tossed into the ditch somewhere upstream and washed down with the rest of the castoffs.

A 20-inch-long umbilical cord trailed away from her stomach into the murky water. Her full head of auburn hair was drenched. Malak said her little body was still warm when he received it, indicating she had only been dead only a few hours.

"Our society calls this a fetus instead of a baby," said Malak."But this child was alive and healthy inside the womb and was developed well enough to have survived with a Cesarean section."

Three morgue technicians stood beside the autopsy table, watching and assisting as the pathologist performed his task. Malak's gloved hands swept back and forth in mechanical fashion across the opened body.

"She is 16 inches long and weighs five pounds," his distinctive voice was subdued. "The arms are 6½ inches long. Her eyes are well-developed with eyelashes fully formed. The gastrointestinal tract is well-developed also."

Her death was acute as reflected by the massive congestion in most of her organs. At first, the child jerked and fought to fill her lungs as she struggled desperately to save her life. Shortly afterwards she was expelled from her mother.

"Some might think it was the murder of a child," said Malak. "However, this infant was not considered a person in the legal sense. It does not matter that she could have survived and her heart had been beating for six months.

"It also does not matter that premature infants weighing only half as much as this little girl have survived in hospital incubators."

In the sterile setting of Malak's domain, it's easy to see how a medical scientist can detach his feelings from the thousands of bodies examined each year.

However, the pathologist said he has never felt closer to any victim than when he held the tiny heart of Infant Doe in his hand for a long moment before beginning to analyze it.

The autopsy over, a black bag was zipped tightly around her and she was placed in the morgue freezer where she will remain frozen for up to six months while police search for the mother.

Sources say busy authorities have never looked very long or hard for these people because, legally, there was no victim in a "stillbirth."

Jacki Ragan, now with the National Right to Life Committee, organized a funeral service paid for by donations where two ministers and 100 mourners laid Mary Rose Doe to rest in Calvary Cemetery in Little Rock.

The epitaph inscribed on her tombstone was taken from Dr. Malak's comment in this story: "A perfect little bud clipped before she could blossom."

Now go out and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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