Medicine: Thalidomide Homicide

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Jurymen and spectators in a darkened Belgian courtroom last week gasped with shock as a professor of clinical medicine showed lantern slides of babies who had been born without arms or legs, or with other crippling deformities because their mothers had taken thalidomide early in pregnancy. The young mother in the prisoner's box covered her eyes. She had seen such a baby last May. It was her own, and she had killed it. Now she was on trial for her life. Being tried with her for conspiracy were her husband, mother, sister, and their family doctor, Jacques Casters.

Deception & Hope. When Suzanne Coipel Van de Put, 24, an ex-secretary married to a civil servant, was confined in Ligėe to bear her first child, she was full of radiant hope. Her labor was hard. But the next days were worse. Doctors would not let her see her daughter, named Corine. The baby had no arms, her face was disfigured, and her anal canal emptied through her vagina. When the deception could go on no longer and Suzanne saw her baby, she was stunned.

Her mother and sister had already reached a decision: the baby must not be allowed to live. From Dr. Casters, they got a prescription for enough barbiturates to kill an infant. Suzanne's husband, Jean Van de Put, 35, was given little say. Soon after she got home, Suzanne mixed the barbiturates with the honey-sweetened formula. The week-old baby died. The police, tipped off by Mme. Van de Put's suspicious pediatrician, found not only the dead baby but the cause of its deformities: thalidomide in the Van de Puts' medicine chest.

Last week 500 spectators in the Liėge courtroom cheered and applauded as Dr. André Herpin, who signed the death certificate, testified: "If I had been the only one to know about the killing, I would have written 'Death from natural causes.''' The court asked whether Herpin had examined the baby's body. "No," he replied hoarsely. "I did not have the courage to undress it."

She Would Have Known. The defendants did not deny the facts of the killing. They argued only that it was better than letting the baby live. Suzanne Van de Put said she had been unable to get assurance that the baby could be fitted with artificial arms.† She added: "If only my baby had also been mentally abnormal, she would not have realized what her fate was. But she had a normal brain. She would have realized—she would have known."

The prosecution demanded conviction but recommended leniency. The defense asked acquittal, blamed "a poisoned gift from modern science." The court admitted as evidence stacks of letters supporting the defendants, and a public opinion poll promoted by Radio Luxembourg ran 10 to 1 in their favor. At week's end, the jury of twelve men took just 105 minutes to reach its verdict: not guilty.

† Not-yet-final figures indicate that 10,000 thalidomide-deformed babies were born in West Germany, with 5,000 still living and 1,600 expected to need artificial limbs. Britain reports about 450, with 350 still living.