×

Baby Fae, A Baboon Heart, And Bioethics

1980s | November 11, 2019

Baby Fae, the world's first infant to receive a baboon heart transplant. Doctors at Loma Linda said they were elated with the child's progress. Baby Fae died 21 days after the controversial transplant. Source: (gettyimages.com)

On October 14, 1984, a tiny, premature, and the very sick baby was born in California. Although her birth certificate listed her name as Stephanie Fae Beauclair, she became known to the world as Baby Fae.

Baby Fae was born with a fatal heart defect called hypoplastic left heart syndrome. Babies born with this condition always pass away within a week or two, so Baby Fae's mother was advised to take her tiny baby home to die in comfort. One doctor, however---Leonard Lee Bailey of Loma Linda University Medical Center---offered the family hope. His controversial proposition caught the world's attention and thrust tiny Baby Fae into the middle of bioethical debate. Here is the story of Baby Fae, a baboon heart, and bioethics.

Dr. Leonard Bailey was a leader in pediatric heart care. Source: (news.llu.edu)

Dr. Bailey's Radical Idea

Dr. Leonard Bailey was a pioneer in pediatric open-heart surgery. He had even performed heart transplants on children, though when Baby Fae was born, no one had yet performed a successful infant heart transplant. The first human heart transplant occurred decades earlier in 1967, but infant heart transplants posed a number of challenges. The blood vessels surrounding infants' hearts are minute, for one thing. Additionally, the supply of infant donor hearts is typically low. That's pretty good news overall, but it meant there were no infant hearts available when Baby Fae was born. Dr. Bailey had to think outside the box ... and outside the human body. 

A baboon heart is nearly identical to a human heart. Source: (nypost.com)

What Are Xenografts?

Dr. Bailey had spent several years researching xenografts, the process of transplanting organs from one animal species to another. He had done as many as 150 interspecies organ transplants involving goats, sheep, and primates, and he believed the time was right to put humans into the mix. Loma Linda Medical Center granted him permission to replace Baby Fae's faulty human heart with one taken from a baboon.

Baby Fae's new heart began beating immediately. Source: (news.llu.edu)

The Surgery

Baby Fae was 12 days old on October 26, 1984, when she was wheeled into surgery. Dr. Bailey led the medical team who removed her defective heart and replaced it with the healthy heart of a baboon. At 11:35 A.M., the new heart began beating on its own inside Baby Fae's chest.

Thousands of people were pulling for Baby Fae to get well. Source: (home.bt.com)

A Media Frenzy

News leaked about Baby Fae and her new baboon heart, and she became the subject of intense media attention. Thousands of people send cards, flowers, gifts, and money to Baby Fae along with prayers and well-wishes. Others marveled at the advances of modern medicine and the hope for the future that primate-human organ transplants may have offered.

Protesters marched outside Loma Linda Hospital. Source: (abc7.com)

The Bad Side

While the outpouring of support for tiny Baby Fae was heartwarming, there was an equal number of people who were alarmed by the procedure. Baby Fae's baboon heart opened a can of worms in the area of medical ethics, generating many questions that were not easily answered. Do parents have the right to subject their children to experimental medical procedures? Do these experimental surgeries give false hope to desperate parents? 

Baby Fae's transplant led to debates about animal rights. Source: (southbendtribune.com)

Animal Rights

Animal rights activists were also outraged by Baby Fae's baboon heart, going so far as to march outside Loma Linda Medical Facility. An unwilling, captive baboon was slaughtered and its organs were taken to give to Baby Fae, they contended. If this could be done with a high degree of success, they further argued, it could mean that that primates' organs could be systematically harvested for human use. Just how far should humans push the boundaries of medical ethics? How much should a human's life be valued over an animal's?

Baby Fae forced some people to admit that humans are close to animals. Source: (drlindseyfitzharris.com)

The Human Heart

For many people, the human heart and the emotional core that it symbolizes are what make humans human. To them, a human-animal heart transplant would rob the recipient of their humanity in a sense. The Baby Fae case forced people to look at the fine line between humans and animals, particularly primates, and face the reality that humans are more like animals than many people would like to admit.

Baby Fae's case riveted the nation. Source: (twitter.com)

Animal Organ Transplants Were Not New

Although Baby Fae was the youngest recipient of an organ transplanted from an animal, she was not the first. In the 1960s, experimental surgeries were performed on four patients, each of whom received kidneys from primates with minimal success. One patient lived nine months with the primate kidney. There had even been four attempts prior to Baby Fae to transplant a baboon heart into an adult human. Even though baboon hearts are nearly identical to human hearts, all of the patients died within a few days. Dr. Bailey had high hopes for success in Baby Fae's case, however, because a new immunosuppressant drug had recently been developed that greatly reduced the chance of organ rejection.

Dr. Bailey went on to complete the first human to human heart transplant in an infant. Source: (washingtonpost.com)

The Fate of Baby Fae

At first, Baby Fae seemed to thrive with her new baboon heart. However, two weeks after the surgery, her health began to decline. She died on November 16, 1984, 21 days after receiving her baboon heart. It wasn't because the new wonder drug didn't work as promised; her death was not the result of her body rejecting the new heart. It was actually because she and the baboon didn't have the same blood type, which is apparently possible. You learn something new every day.

Baby Fae lived for only 21 days with her baboon heart. Source: (roodepoortnorthsider.co.za)

Baby Fae in Pop Culture

Although Baby Fae's life was short, her legacy lives on, not only as an important case study in the issue of bioethics but as a pop culture moment. References to the baby with the baboon heart appear in TV shows like The Simpsons and Stranger Things and songs like "The Boy in the Bubble" by Paul Simon.

Tags: animals | baby fae | medicine

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.