Fetal surgery photo still making an impact

| Julie Pfitzinger for The Catholic Spirit | September 28, 2011 | 0 Comments

During an in-womb procedure to correct spina bifida on a 21-week-old fetus, the baby’s hand grips the finger of Dr. Joseph Bruner in an operating room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 19, 1999. Photographer Michael Clancy, right, captured the moment for USA Today. Since then, Clancy has made the photo available to pro-life organizations for brochures, posters and websites. CNS photo by Michael Clancy

Photographer Michael Clancy has become champion of pro-life cause

In 1999, freelance photojournalist Michael Clancy accepted an assignment that would change his life in unexpected ways.

Clancy was sent by USA Today to an operating room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn., to take photos during a procedure intended to correct the spina bifida of a 21-week-old boy in utero. A medical assignment like this one was atypical for Clancy, but he welcomed the opportunity.

During the operation, something extraordinary happened. The tiny hand of baby Samuel emerged from his mother’s womb, his fingers curling around the finger of surgeon Dr. Joseph Bruner.

Samuel had received no anesthetic directly, but Clancy said the mother had received a dose similar to what would be given to a woman during a Cesarean section, administered approximately 30 minutes earlier than usual to make sure the baby received enough to sedate him as well.

Right away, Clancy realized the baby was no longer fully sedated. He quickly took four photos in a row, which resemble a video when they are watched in succession, showing the emergence of Samuel’s hand.

Hear Clancy speak

Michael Clancy will be the featured speaker at the 3rd Annual Banquet for Life, sponsored by North Side Life Care Center in Minneapolis on Thursday, Oct. 13.

The event, titled “Turning the Tide: Let Every Child Be Welcomed Into Life” will be held at the Metropolitan in Golden Valley and will feature a reception and dinner.
For more information or for reservations, call (612) 522-6589 or visit http://www.northsidelifecare.org.

To learn more about photographer Michael Clancy and his story, visit his website at http://www.michaelclancy.com.

Capturing the truth

It is what happened next that has become a significant part of Clancy’s story and has lead to his ongoing mission to tell the truth of that experience.

“Someone in the operating room came from behind and tried to stop me from taking more photos. Obviously, I had captured something they didn’t want me to get,” Clancy said. “After we left the operating room, Dr. Bruner was very angry with me, and it was then I knew he was going to deny what happened and the truth of the photo I had taken.”

The photo was published in the Tennessean Newspaper and USA Today; staff members at Vanderbilt Medical Center publicly denied its veracity and continue to do so today.  Dr. Bruner has said the baby was anesthetized and did not move his arm in a purposeful manner.

Clancy said the photo clearly revealed the challenges of keeping an unborn baby sedated during surgery, which was a situation he believes doctors and other staff members wanted to suppress.

“The only thing I’ve done is fought for this picture from the very beginning,” Clancy said.

Still not easy

The story of the photograph has many additional layers.  Having survived a difficult childhood and other challenges, Clancy, 55, who is nominally a Baptist, said Christ “came into my life when I asked him,” just three months before the photo in the operating room was taken.

While Clancy does not regret the opportunities he has had to meet so many people whose lives have been touched by this photo, it has taken him far from his comfort zone. He also struggles to deal with the loss of his career as a freelance news photographer, which occurred several years after the publication of the photo.

“I’ve done 115 public speaking events so far, and I’ll tell you, I’m so shy that every one of them is still uncomfortable for me,” Clancy said. “People pour their hearts out, and that means so much, but in some ways, I just have so much responsibility with this photo. It can be a burden.”

Clancy has seen young Samuel Armas twice since that fateful day in the operating room — once in 2003, when the two of them were invited to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., during debate over partial-birth abortions, and once in 2007, when the two attended an event for a pregnancy care center.

Now 12 years old, Samuel occasionally uses a wheelchair or wears braces on his legs, but is otherwise living a normal life, Clancy said.

Clancy published a book last year called “Hand of Hope: The Story Behind the Picture” and fully realizes the ongoing importance of the photo, especially to those involved in the pro-life movement, a cause he now champions. He has been a featured speaker at National Right to Life conventions in Florida and Washington, D.C.

“It is so wrong what is happening to unborn babies, and to be honest, I have heard stories that haunt me,” Clancy said. “But I also believe that God’s miracles are happening every day.”

Respect Life program focuses on why ‘life matters’ at all stages

The new eight-part “Life Matters” series, covering life issues from conception to death, is the centerpiece of the 2011-12 Respect Life program that begins with Respect Life Sunday, Oct. 2 this year.

The “Life Matters” series, available in English and Spanish, covers topics including abortion, contraception, the death penalty, persons with disabilities, embryo research, end-of-life issues, reproductive technologies, and love and marriage, according to a news release from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Read more at http://www.usccb.org

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