Samuel’s Hand Continues to Reach Out to People Around the World

Liz Townsend


While partial-birth abortion is being debated in the Supreme Court, Congress, and state legislatures, the tiny fist of a baby the same age as many of those killed in the gruesome procedure continues to grab the consciences of people around the world. The photo of 21-week-old unborn baby Samuel Armas’s hand during fetal surgery for spina bifida — eight months after it was first published — is still forcing people to acknowledge that preborn children are human beings too.

“The picture unambiguously illustrates the humanity of an unborn child at approximately the same stage of pregnancy as most infants who are killed by partial-birth abortion,” Brad Clanton, counsel for the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, told USA Today. “No reasonable person could look at that picture and deny that that is a tiny member of the human race, with an arm, a hand, fingers, and a sense of touch.”

The photos of Samuel’s fetal surgery, which took place August 19, 1999, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, were shown during debate on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. The bill passed April 5 by a vote of 287-141.

Samuel was born on December 2, 1999. His parents are thrilled but surprised that their son has had such an impact. “It mushroomed beyond what we thought it would,” Samuel’s mother, Julie Armas, told the Associated Press. “We wanted people to know that when we found out about our baby, it was not the end of the world. There are other options than abortion and even traditional [after birth] treatment.”

Spina bifida occurs when the spinal column fails to fuse properly, leaving a lesion (or opening) that is highly susceptible to infection. Left untreated, spina bifida can lead to leg paralysis and other problems. It is often accompanied by hydrocephalus, a blockage in the brain that causes a build-up of spinal fluid, which requires surgical placement of a shunt to drain the fluid and can lead to brain damage.

“Our main goal when we decided to have the surgery was to prevent hydrocephalus,”Mrs. Armas told NRL News. “It didn’t matter to us if the baby had some disability; we never would have had an abortion no matter what.”

During the surgery, doctors at Vanderbilt opened Julie Armas’s uterus, removed Samuel partially out of his mother’s womb, and closed the lesion. The purpose of the surgery is to protect the spinal cord from further damage during the remainder of the pregnancy, hopefully preventing the most serious effects of the spina bifida.

So far, at five months of age, Samuel’s progress is very promising, although it will take several years to determine the extent of damage caused by the spina bifida before surgery, which may include partial leg paralysis and lack of bladder control. Mrs. Armas told NRL News that Samuel shows no sign of hydrocephalus, but continues to receive physical therapy to maintain flexibility in his legs.

“These are things you can live with,” Alex Armas, Samuel’s father, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He may not be able to run fast or be a sports star. But knowing how bad it could have been, these things are minimal in terms of importance and priorities. He smiles, he picks his head up, he’s almost turning over; he’s doing everything a baby should be doing, and that is what we wanted.”

The Armases, who live in Douglasville, Georgia, didn’t see the photograph until it was published in USA Today on September 7, 1999. “We had heard about it – – the surgical team had told us it was likely to be something special – – but we hadn’t seen it,” Mr. Armas said according to the Journal-Constitution.

“He wasn’t even born yet, but that was our baby; that was my boy.”

Dr. Joseph Bruner, the surgeon who is holding Samuel’s hand in the picture, told the Journal-Constitution about the moment that is immortalized in Michael Clancy’s photograph. “When Samuel’s hand appeared in the uterine opening, I impulsively reached out and lifted it,” he said. “It was a very human thing to do, to reach out and take someone’s hand.”

“When I saw the proof, I was astonished at what a powerful photograph it was,” Bruner continued. “But even so, I was surprised by the media attention that it received.”

The photograph, which is owned by a press agency that charges a fee each time it is used, has been reprinted in NRL News and has appeared in other countries, including Canada, Ireland, England, France, Germany, Norway, Singapore, and South America.

“From something so terrible to begin with, we never considered that a diagnosis like that could mean blessings,” Alex Armas told the Journal-Constitution.

“Our whole reason for deciding to agree to the photograph has been fulfilled on a larger scale than we could ever have dreamed. People have found out about the surgery, and we are happy with that.”


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