Commentary by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman

MORRO AGUDO, BRAZIL, June 5, 2008 ( – In announcing that the Brazilian Supreme Court may soon rule on whether to permit abortions for anencephalic babies – infants born without a complete brain – Folha de Sao Paulo columnist Josias de Souza claimed that such children normally die within days of birth.

But tell that to Cacilda Galante Ferreira, whose daughter Marcela was born with anencephaly a year and a half ago in Morro Agudo, Sao Paulo State, Brazil. The baby is very much alive, quite healthy, and responds to family members.

“One week I had to go out and I left Marcela sleeping with my other daughter. When I returned she was agitated and crying. I can’t stay away from her for one minute,” her mother told the newspaper A Cidade in February.

Although she was born without most of her brain, Marcela Ferreira has lived for a year and a half with little extraordinary care. She receives oxygen supplementation and eats through a feeding tube inserted through her nose, but otherwise lives normally. She interacts with family members and shows signs of consciousness. Her presence is a joy for all.

“My little dear, the little infant so small and fragile, is today strong and very much loved by everyone,” her mother reportedly wrote in a diary entry. “Little Marcela came into the world to touch our hearts and to show us the true meaning of life.”

When Marcela was diagnosed with anencephaly, still in the womb, her mother was given the option to abort the child. Her doctor, she says, “gave me a week to decide if I was going to continue with the pregnancy. I responded that it is not right to be so cruel as to kill that small and innocent child.”

Myths about anencephaly abound, and if Brazil’s recent decision on embryonic stem cell research is any indication, factual scientific errors about the condition could lead the justices of Brazil’s Supreme Court to condemn thousands of unborn children to an untimely death.

In the stem cell case, concluded last week, approving justices based their ruling on the claim that frozen embryos cannot survive after three years (see LifeSite coverage at However, frozen embryos have been successfully implanted well after three years in storage, and scientists say that there is no known limit to the viability of frozen embryos.

Abortion advocates promote several fallacies about anencephaly. The first and most obvious error, similar to the previous one, is that anencephalic infants are not viable outside of the womb. However they can, and do, survive for weeks, months, even years after birth. What may be the longest-living anencephalic baby, “Baby K”, lived two and a half years in the United States, dying in 1995.

In fact, an ethics report issued by the American Medical Association in 1994 (CEJA Report 5 – I-94) which endorsed the brutal practice of removing the organs of anencephalic babies while still alive, nevertheless admitted that ten percent of such babies survive for more than a week after birth (see full text at

The report went on to confess that, “however, because these neonates often do not receive aggressive treatment, their potential lifespan is probably longer than their actual lifespan.”

The report made a second admission that contradicts the conventional wisdom about anencephalic babies. While abortion advocates claim that tests for anencephaly are absolutely reliable, the American Medical Association acknowledges that “misdiagnoses of infants as anencephalic have been documented in the medical literature and detected by surveillance programs”.

The AMA admits that the “possibility of misdiagnoses cannot be entirely eliminated”, but assures the reader that “the diagnosis of anencephaly is highly reliable”.

What the AMA is acknowledging is that a certain percentage of babies discarded in the waste disposal of the abortion clinic as “anencephalic” will not be sufferers of the disease at all. However, the report calls the risk “insignificant”.

Risks of misdiagnosis may seem “insignificant” to a doctor, but parents tend to have a different perspective. A case in point is that of Brandon Kramer, who was diagnosed with a brain defect while still developing in the womb. His parents, Becky Weatherall and her boyfriend Kriss Kramer were told that their son’s brain was malformed and enlarged, and that fluid had collected in his skull (see recent LifeSite coverage at

Doctors told the couple that their son would be deaf and blind, and was unlikely to survive long after birth. Although the pregnancy was at a late stage, they recommended an abortion, an idea that Weatherall and Kramer rejected.

Contrary to the doctors’ claims, the couple’s child was born completely healthy, and normal.

“I feel incredibly guilty thinking that I could have killed him,” said Weatherall, “and then I find myself wondering how many other babies are killed who would have turned out to be completely healthy.”

It is difficult to know how many false diagnoses of anencephaly and other birth defects occur annually because a high percentage of such children are aborted, resulting in a mutilated corpse that is not examined after the procedure.

Approximately 95% of anencephalic babies are aborted before birth, according to the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. This rate is similar for other birth defects. In northern California, for example, 95% of unborn children diagnosed with cystic fibrosis are aborted, according to the insurer Kaiser Permanente.

What may be the most devastating error regarding anencephaly is the notion that sufferers cannot possibly have consciousness because the parts of the brain in which thinking occurs are absent. In reality, medical science has shown that a process known as neuroplasticity can “rewire” brain cells to change their function and compensate for the loss of other cells.

The Italian National Bioethics Committee has admitted that this effect could actually allow a degree of consciousness to develop in anencephalic babies, whose brain stem is intact. Although the brain stem normally acts to maintain the functioning of the body’s organs, its cells could theoretically change function to compensate for the missing upper brain.

“The neuroplasticity of the brain stem could be sufficient to guarantee to the anencephalic infant, at least in the least serious cases, a certain primitive possibility of conscience,” the Committee wrote in its 1996 report, “The Anencephalic Neonate and Organ Donation”.

The possibility of neuroplasticity provides a scientific explanation for the fact that little Marcela Ferreira exhibits many signs of consciousness. According to Luiz Carlos Lodi da Cruz, a Catholic priest and pro-life activist, “Marcela reacts to the touch of her mother. With her hand, she grabs the fingers of Mrs. Cacilda.”

She reacts to light and sound, makes facial expressions, and cries. “When she doesn’t want a particular food, she spits it out. She recognizes the voice of her mother,” writes Lodi da Cruz on his website (

“Doctors will tell you that an anencephalic child can neither see nor hear, nor feel pain, that he or she is a vegetable,” says Anencephaly-info, a website maintained by parents of anencephalic children ( “However, that does not match up with the experience of many families who have had an anencephalic child.”

“The brain is affected to varying degrees, according to the child; the brain tissue can reach different stages of development. Some children are able to swallow, eat, cry, hear, feel vibrations (loud sounds), react to touch and even to light. But most of all, they respond to our love: you don’t need a complete brain to give and receive love – all you need is a heart!” the site’s authors write.

However, given the severe nature of anencephaly, the disorder is likely to be used by pro-abortion groups as a “wedge issue” to create a precedent for the legalization of abortion in Brazil. Advocates of abortion for anencephalic babies, such as columnist Josias de Souza, are already disseminating scientific errors, distortions, and exaggerations regarding the issue.

For example, de Souza claims in his recent blog entry ( that anencephalic pregnancies present a “high risk” of harm to the mother. Although it is true that there is an increased risk of certain complications during such pregnancies, the overall risk to the mother’s health is low.

“The diagnosis of anencephaly in the fetus poses a slightly increased medical risk to the mother,” says the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin on its website ( The authors of Anencephaly-info acknowledge that there may be an excess of amniotic fluid and other minor complications, but that otherwise the pregnancy is “normal” and is not dangerous for the mother.

De Souza also highlights the short lifespan of anencephalic infants, and claims that “the possibility of diagnostic error” of anencephaly before birth “is close to zero”. “Close,” however, will not be enough to protect the children whose lives will be lost in the false diagnoses that will inevitably occur.

More significantly, De Souza ignores the fundamental moral argument against abortion: that human beings have a fundamental right to live, regardless of their handicap or lack of development. Pro-lifers contend that no one has the right to kill an innocent human being, because people are not objects to be manipulated and destroyed for the sake of convenience.

Instead of addressing the issue directly, de Souza makes an emotional appeal, disregarding such moral considerations and claiming that the baby is incapable of consciousness and will die shortly anyway. In other words, it doesn’t matterâEUR¦much.

The difference between the rationale for abortion in this case and in other cases, such as the “psychological and social well-being of the mother” or even her “freedom to control her body” is merely one of degree. A Supreme Court decision in favor of abortion for anencephalic babies is likely to act as a “wedge”, allowing an increasing loosening of restrictions on abortion until it is effectively legal on demand.

The first “wedge” was the Supreme Court’s approval of deadly embryonic stem cell research, which destroys human life at its earliest stage. It remains to be seen if Brazilian proponents of abortion will be able to insert a second wedge into place.

Related Links:

The Possibility of Consciousness in Anencephalic Babies Acknowledged by Italian National Bioethics Committee (Portuguese Translation of Italian Original):
The Anencephalic Neonate and Organ Donation, June 21, 1996 (Il neonato anencefalico e la donazione di organi. 21 giugno 1996, p. 11). (Portuguese Translation of Italian Original)

The Smiles of Marcela (Portuguese)

In perfect health, the baby doctors said would be born deaf and blind …and live only a few hours—live-hours.html

Anencephaly Information (maintained by parents of anencephalic children)

American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs,
The Use of Anencephalic Neonates as Organ Donors (Report 5 – 1-94)

Federal Supreme Tribunal Hill Judge the Interruption of Pregnancy in Cases of Anencephaly (Portuguese)

Related Coverage:

Brazilian Supreme Court to Consider Constitutionality of Abortion

Brazilian Supreme Court Upholds Deadly Embryonic Stem Cell Research in Close Vote

Brazilian Supreme Court May Approve Constitutionality of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Baby Born Healthy Defies Doctor’s Abortion Advice