The federal government has now sent a daunting signal of its intention - under this administration at least - to override a careful, responsible, and considered parental decision in yet another important area of vital concern: matters affecting children's health.
A mother and father in New York state, after weighing medical diagnosis, consulting social workers and clergy, decided - with the concurrence of court, clergy, and physician - to forgo surgical treatment for a newborn infant judged irreversibly disabled.
An attorney with no connections to the family intervened to reverse this decision and to force federal control of the case. The New York State Court of Appeals expressed shock at the outsider's suit, overturned the ruling he had won , and, in fact, called the action ''offensive.''
Within days, however, federal authorities moved into the situation. The Justice Department, the government's legal arm, at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services, its national health-services arm, filed suit in federal court to force the hospital, now caring for the infant, to turn over all records in the case today. The Surgeon General of the US, it was disclosed last weekend, had already obtained at least some of the records.
The government argues that hospitals accepting government funds are subject to federal surveillance and therefore must produce records on demand. In this case, the Justice Department asserts, the records are needed in order to discover whether, as assessed from a Washington vantage point at least, the baby has been discriminated against because it was diagnosed as handicapped.
Until the Baby Jane Doe situation, as the New York case is labeled, families facing cases that have no standard medical solution have, with the agreement of the physician, generally been allowed to make their own decisions.
In cases where medical process is considered decisive or even merely useful, judicial and medical authorities are increasingly exercising control regardless of parental preference. In September, for example, Tennessee courts upheld the state health agency's request to treat a 12-year-old girl, despite her father's objections.
The Reagan administration's interest in the issue began more than a year ago, following the case of a retarded Bloomington, Ind., infant known as Baby Doe. Anti-abortion groups protested a decision, which was upheld in the lower courts, to withhold food and medical care from the child. They labeled the decision ''infanticide.'' The US Supreme Court yesterday declined to review the 1982 Indiana Baby Doe case.
The Reagan administration on March 22, 1983, published federal rules requiring doctors and hospitals to provide food and medical care to infants with severe birth defects, threatening to withhold federal funds from such institutions. The rules were struck down in a federal district court. The Baby Jane Doe case is now the latest effort to impose federal authority over family, physician, local hospital, and public health agency judgment.
The parents of Baby Jane Doe and countless other parents across the country must now be asking questions which relate to freedoms touching the very core of human experience.
Has the jeopardy of free decision and heartfelt conscience, so threatened elsewhere in the world, begun to seep through American society as well in the guise of governmental paternalism?
Who now will speak in behalf of families who reason, or as in some cases, pray their way quietly, devotedly through circumstances where no fully satisfactory choice is apparent?
What has happened to convictions so fervently espoused by President Reagan regarding the hand of federal authority? Is he not committed to keeping that hand from growing bolder in its outreach?
Is the health of the nation, life by life, to be entrusted so totally to government or judicial authority, or, for that matter, to medical authority? Who among such authorities claims infallibility? Does society fully recognize the direction it is headed?
We urge the President, out of his own depth of caring for family and conscience, to ponder this case and its portents.