WHEN I read that a family was awarded $50 million over a Renton hospital’s failure to detect a birth defect, I felt as though I was reading a piece of speculative fiction satirizing a litigious society with advanced medical technology.
Indeed, terms like “wrongful-birth” and “tragedy,” in reference to the birth of a child, ring of Ray Bradbury’s science-fiction writing or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
The wrongdoing in this case was committed by Valley Medical Center in Renton and Laboratory Corporation of America (LabCorp), which is based in North Carolina.
In December, a King County jury found that the hospital and lab mishandled genetic testing that didn’t catch a chromosomal disorder in the child Rhea Wuth was carrying.
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Upon delivery of their son, Oliver, the Wuths discovered he had profound mental and physical disabilities. The Wuths sued Valley Medical and LabCorp, arguing that had the test returned accurate information, they would have terminated the pregnancy and been saved the tragedy of raising a child with special needs.
In one of the most progressive cities in the nation, how do we reconcile this verdict with our strongly held belief that all lives have equal value?
We do not accept intolerance and bigotry. We advocate for the rights of all regardless of race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, or the presence of any mental or physical disability. We teach our children to eliminate speech that perpetuates negative stereotypes or hatred. All of this is just and good.
Yet, the very premise of the lawsuit is an indignity to those with mental and physical disabilities and their families. It spits on the legacy of everyone who has fought to make our nation more equal and accepting of people with differing abilities.
How could it be otherwise when a court of law finds that a son with special needs is such a terrible burden on his parents that his birth warrants the largest individual award in Washington state history of $50 million?
If a society is indeed judged by how it treats the most vulnerable, what does it say about us that a jury of our peers declared that the Wuths would be better off had Oliver never been born?
As the proud uncle of a girl with a rare chromosomal disorder, I cannot believe the Wuths would be better off without Oliver.
In 2001, my sister-in-law learned that her daughter had tetrasomy 9p, a chromosomal disorder so rare that she would be only the 28th documented case in the world.
Doctors advised that the child wouldn’t live past two months, or have any meaningful quality of life. My sister-in-law, a woman of unimaginable strength, chose to carry her daughter to term.
Alana was born full-term at 3 pounds, 10 ounces, with a bilateral cleft pallet, and two holes in her heart that required surgery at one week old. She had a trach tube for four years and a feeding tube for 11. She couldn’t walk until she was five, and at nearly 13 she shuffles more than runs. She is nonverbal, but highly communicative.
As it turns out, Alana has been the light of our family and our greatest teacher. Among the most important lessons she’s taught us is that expectations in life are almost guaranteed to be thwarted, but the results can be beautiful. I can only hope the same for Oliver and his family.
Perhaps most startling to me is how this lawsuit has shaken one of my core, long-held political beliefs that every woman has a right to abortion without restriction or explanation.
This is currently the law of our land, and therefore makes the Wuths’ lawsuit legally justifiable, and sets precedent for future cases. But this verdict leaves me one burning question: Will the selective aborting of babies with undesirable characteristics truly make us a more just and perfect society?
To invoke Shakespeare, o brave new world, how beauteous mankind is, where life is a tragedy and a boy is evidence of his wrongful-birth.
Josh Aaseng is a theater artist in Seattle.