The Final Report on the Lifeline Experiment
It has been less than a month now since the sealed personal files of the late Daniel Staley have been opened, but already the rumors are beginning to be heard: rumors that explosive new information concerning the Lifeline Experiment has been uncovered. Though these rumors contain a grain of truth, they are for the most part the products of prejudice and hysteria, and it is in an effort to separate the truth from the lies that I have consented to write this report. Since, too, I find that even after twenty years a great number of popular misconceptions still surround the experiment itself, I feel it is necessary for me to begin with a full recounting of those controversial events of 1994.
I suppose I should first say a word about my credentials. I became Dr. Staley's private secretary in 1989 and continued in this role full-time until his tragic death. My usefulness to him stemmed from my eidetic memory which, especially when coupled with his telepathic abilities, made me a sort of walking information retrieval system for him. It is also the reason I can claim perfect accuracy for my memories of the events and conversations I am about to describe.
The popular press usually credits Dr. Staley with coming up with the Lifeline Experiment idea on his own, but the original suggestion actually came from the Reverend Ron Brady in mid-January of 1994. Brady, a good friend of Dan's, was driving us back to San Francisco from a seminar on bioethics at USC and the conversation, almost inevitably, turned to the subject of abortion.
"You realize last week's decision makes the third time the Supreme Courts reversed itself in the last twenty years," Brady commented. "I think that must be some kind of record."
"I wasn't keeping score, myself," Dan replied, stretching his legs as far as the seat permitted. It had been a hard weekend for him, I knew; though it had been over two years at that point since the National Academy of Sciences had officially certified his telepathic ability, there were still a few die-hard skeptics around determined to prove he was a fraud. From the number of handshakes I'd seen him wince over I gathered most of the doubters must have converged on USC for the weekend, and he was only now beginning to relax.
"It's crazy." Brady shook his head. "The legality of something like that shouldn't change every time a new administration sets up shop in Washington. It makes for emotional and legal chaos all around and gives the impression that there are no absolute standards of morality at all."
Dan shrugged. "You know me, Ron. I believe in letting people do what they like in this life, on the theory that whatever they do wrong will catch up with them in the next."
Brady smiled lopsidedly. "The laissez-faire moralist. But don't we have an obligation to help our fellow men minimize the problems they'll have in the next life? That seems to me a perfectly good rationale for the inclusion of morality in law."
Dan reached a hand back over the seat toward me. "Iris: a devastating quotation to put this fellow in his place, if you please."
I made no move to take his hand. "I'm sorry, Dr. Staley," I said primly, "but it would be unethical for me to help you in your arguments. Especially against a man of the cloth."
He chuckled, threw me a wink, and withdrew his hand. "Seriously, though, I don't see how you can expect anything but political flip-flopping when you have an issue that's so long on emotion and so short on real scientific fact. A human fetus is alive, certainly; but so are mosquitoes and inflamed tonsils. When a fetus becomes a human being and entitled to society's protection is something we may never know."
"True." Brady glanced at Dan. "Maybe you ought to try contacting a fetus telepathically someday; see if you can figure it out."
"Sure," Dan deadpanned. "I could go in claiming to be womb service or something."
Brady came back with a pun of his own, and the conversation shifted to the topic of microcurrent therapy for certain brain disorders, where it remained for the rest of the drive. But even though Dan didn't say anything about it for four months, it is clear in retrospect that Brady's not-quite-serious comment had taken root in his imagination. Even for somebody as phlegmatic as Dan, the possibility that he could take a swing at such a persistent controversy must have been an intriguing idea, especially after the weekend he'd just gone through. Unfortunately, it also is abundantly clear that he started things in motion without any real understanding of what he was getting himself into.
It was just before five o'clock on May 23, and I was preparing to go home when Dan called me into his office. "Iris, didn't I meet a couple of professors in the Child Development Department of Cal State Hayward down at USC last January? What were their names?"
"Dr. Eliot Jordan and Dr. Pamela Halladay," I supplied promptly. "Do you want the conversation, too?"
He pursed his lips, then nodded. "I'd better. I'm pretty foggy on what they were like."
I sat down next to him and took his hand in mine. Even now there are many people who don't realize that Dan's telepathy required some form of physical contact with his subject. They envision him tapping into the secrets of government or industry from his San Mateo home. In reality a moderately thick shirt would block his reception completely.
The conversation hadn't been very long to begin with, and playing it back took only a few seconds. When I'd finished, Dan let go and frowned off into space for a moment, while I played the conversation back again for myself, wondering what he was looking for. "They both seemed pretty reasonable people to you, didn't they?" he asked, breaking into my thoughts. "Competent scientists, honest, no particular axes at the grindstone?"
"I suppose so." I shrugged. "It might help if you told me what you had in mind."
He grinned. "I'll show you. What's the phone number over there?"
I gave him the college's number, and within a few minutes he'd been routed to the proper department. "Of course I remember you, Dr. Staley," Dr. Jordan said after Dan had identified himself and mentioned their brief USC meeting. Even coming out of a tiny phone speaker grille, his voice sounded as full and hearty as it had in person. "It would be very hard to forget meeting such a distinguished person as yourself. What can I do for you?"
"How would you like to help me with an experiment that might possibly put the lid on the abortion debate once and for all?"
There was a long moment of silence. "That sounds very interesting," Jordan said, somewhat cautiously. "Would you care to explain?"
Dan leaned his chair back a notch and began to stroke his cheek idly with the end of his pencil. "It seems to me, Doctor, that the issue boils down to the question of when, exactly, the fetus becomes a human being. I believe that, with a little bit of practice, I might be able to telepathically follow a fetus through its entire development. With luck, I may be able to pin down that magic moment. At worst, I may be able to show that a fetus isn't human during the entire first month or trimester or whatever. Either way, an experiment like that should inject some new scientific facts into the issue."
"Yes," Jordan said slowly, "depending on whether your findings would be considered 'scientific' by any given group, of course." He paused. "I agree that it's at least worth some discussion. Can you come to Hayward any time this week to talk about it?"
"How about tomorrow afternoon?"
"Tomorrow's Tuesday... yes, my last class is over at two."
"Good. I'll see you about two, then. Good-bye."
Dan hung up the phone and looked at me. "Does that answer your question?"
It took me a moment to find my voice. "Dan, you're crazy. How exactly do you propose to read a fetus's mind without climbing into the embryonic sac with it?"
"Via the mothers nervous system, of course. There must be neural pathways through the placenta and umbilical cord I can use to reach the fetus's brain."
"With the mother blasting away and drowning out whatever the fetus may be putting out?"
"Well, yes, I suppose that might be a problem," he admitted.
"And, even if you do manage to touch the baby's mind, are you even going to know it?" I persisted. "This isn't going to be like the colic studies you did with Sam Sheeler, you know—those babies were at least being exposed to a normal range of stimuli. What on Earth has a fetus got to think about?" He grinned suddenly. "I said it might take some practice." He stood up. "Look, there's no sense dithering over these questions now. We'll go see Jordan tomorrow and hash it all out then. Okay?"
"All right," I said. "After all, if it doesn't work out, no one will ever have to know we came up with such a crazy idea."
"That's what I like about you, Iris: your confidence in me. See you tomorrow."
We arrived on the Hayward campus at two o'clock sharp the next day—and it took only ten minutes for my hopes of keeping this idea under wraps to be completely destroyed.
They were waiting for us outside the door to Jordan's office: a man and woman, both dressed in conservative business suits. I recognized them from TV news shorts of the previous year, but before I could clue Dan in they had stepped forward to intercept us. "Dr. Staley?" the man said. "My name's John Cooper; this is Helen Reese. I wonder if we might have a word with you?" He gestured down the hall to where the door of a small lounge was visible.
"We have an appointment with Dr. Jordan," I put in.
"He's not back from class yet," Mrs. Reese said. "This will only take a few minutes, if you don't mind."
Dan shrugged. "All right," he said agreeably.
The others remained silent until we were seated in a small circle in a corner of the otherwise deserted lounge. "Dr. Staley, we understand you're planning some sort of experiment with Dr. Jordan to determine when life begins," Cooper said, leaning forward slightly in his chair. "We'd like to ask you a few questions about this, if we may."
Dan cocked an eyebrow. "I fail, first of all, to see how you learned about my private conversation with Dr. Jordan," he said calmly, "and, secondly, to understand what business it is of yours."
"Mr. Cooper is the Bay Area president of the Family Alliance," I told him. "Mrs. Reese is their chief antiabortion advocate."
They both looked at me with surprise. "I see," Dan nodded. "Well, that explains the second part of my question. You folks want to take a crack at the first part now?"
"How we heard about it is unimportant," Mrs. Reese said. "What is important is that we find out how you stand on the abortion issue." Dan blinked. "Why?"
"Surely, Doctor, you understand the highly subjective nature of the experiment you're planning," she said. "Naturally, we need to know what your own beliefs are concerning when life arises."
"My telepathic ability is not subjective," Dan said, a bit stiffly. "It's as scientific and accurate as anything you'd care to name. Whatever my beliefs happen to be, I can assure you they do not interfere with either my perception or interpretation."
"Beliefs always affect interpretation, to one degree or another," Cooper said. "Now, you yourself said you could prove the fetus wasn't human until the second trimester of pregnancy. It seems to us that, with such an attitude, you would be very likely to interpret any brain activity before that point as 'nonhuman,' whether it is or not."
Dan looked at me. "Iris?" he invited.
I nodded. "The exact quote, Dr. Cooper, was as follows: 'At worst, I may be able to show that a fetus isn't human during the entire first month or trimester or whatever.' End quote. Dr. Staley made no assumptions in that statement. I suggest you ask your spies to be more accurate in the future."
Reese bristled. "We weren't spying on anyone, Miss Marx; the information relayed to us was obtained quite legitimately."
"I'm sure it was," Dan said, getting to his feet. "Now if you'll excuse us, Dr. Jordan is expecting us."
The rest of us stood, as well. "We haven't finished our conversation, though—" Cooper began.
"Yes, we have," Dan interrupted him. "If—if, mind you—I do this experiment it'll be because I'm convinced it can be done objectively and accurately. If you have any suggestions or comments you're welcome to write them up and send them to my office. Good day."
Threading between them, we left the lounge.
Jordan and Dr. Pamela Halladay were waiting for us when we arrived back at Jordan's office. "Sorry we're late," Dan told them after quick handshakes all around, "but we ran into the local ethics committee. Any idea how the Family Alliance might have overheard our conversation, Dr. Jordan?"
The two of them exchanged glances, then Jordan grimaced. "My secretary, probably," he said. "I called Pam right after I talked to you, and the door to her office was open. I'm sorry; it never occurred to me that she'd go off and tell anyone." "No harm done," Dan shrugged. "Let's forget it and get down to business, shall we?"
"Your idea sounds very interesting, Dr. Staley," Halladay said, "but I think there are one or two technical points that need clearing up. First of all, would you be following a single fetus from conception to term, or would you try to reach a group of fetuses at various stages of growth?"
"I hadn't really thought that much about it," Dan said slowly. "I suppose the second method would be faster."
"It would give better statistics, too," Jordan said. "What do you think, Pam— would a hundred be enough?"
"A hundred subjects?" Dan said, looking a little taken aback.
"Well, sure. If you want this to have scientific validity you'll need a reasonable sample. Why?—did you have a smaller number in mind?"
"Yeah. About ten." Dan frowned. "Maybe we could compromise at twenty- five or so."
"You cut the sample too small and it won't be scientific enough to satisfy the skeptics," Jordan warned.
"Whether it'll be scientific enough anyway was my second question," Halladay put in.
We all looked at her. "What do you mean?" Jordan asked.
"Oh, come on now, Eliot—the heart of the scientific method is the reproducibility of an experiment. With only one proven telepath on Earth, this one is inherently unrepeatable. Whatever Dr. Staley concludes we'll have to take on faith."
"Are you suggesting I might lie?" Dan asked quietly.
"No—I'm suggesting you might misinterpret what you hear. How are you going to know, say, whether the differences you see are human versus nonhuman or simply four months versus two months?"
Dan nodded. "I see. I wondered why you hadn't told Dr. Jordan you'd seen Cooper and Mrs. Reese loitering out in the hall earlier. You called them down on us, didn't you?"
Halladay's face reddened. "No, I... uh... look, I didn't expect anyone to come out here and ambush you like that. I just wanted to know whether you were pro- or antiabortion; if you'd ever taken a public stand on the issue. I mean, they keep files on that sort of thing." Jordan was looking at his co-worker as if she'd just shown a KGB membership card. "Pam! What on earth—"
"It's all right, Dr. Jordan. As I said before, no harm done." Dan turned to Halladay, and there was a glint in his eye I didn't often see. "I'll tell you what I told your friends: I'm not doing this to push anyone's opinions, and that includes any I might have. If you have to pigeonhole me anywhere, put me down as 'protruth.' I won't wear any other labels, understand?"
"Yes. I'm sorry, Doctor." She smiled wanly. "I guess I'm not immune to the emotions the whole subject generates. I'll keep my feelings to myself from now on—I promise."
"Will you prove your sincerity?" Dan leaned forward and offered his hand.
She frowned at it for a second before understanding flickered across her face. Then, visibly steeling herself, she reached out and gingerly took his hand. They held the position for nearly twenty seconds before Dan released his grip and sat back. "Thank you," he said. "I'm sure you'll be a great help to us." Turning to Jordan, he nodded. "Now then, are we ready to begin working out some of the details?"
The discussion took nearly an hour, and the experimental design arrived at was essentially the one that was actually used later that year. Several important problems still remained, however, notably the question of masking the mothers thoughts while Dan tried to touch those of the fetus. From past experience we knew that a deep, sedative-induced sleep would probably do the trick, but Jordan was understandably opposed to giving large dosages of such drugs to pregnant women. The question of whether or not Dan could recognize humanness in a fetal mind at all also remained unanswered.
During the drive back to San Francisco, I asked Dan if Halladay could be trusted.
"I think so," he said. "I didn't see any evidence of duplicity when I touched her. And she was genuinely upset to find the Family Alliance people lying in wait for us."
"What about them? Do you think they'll make trouble?"
"How could they? Denouncing the experiment before it even takes place would make them look silly—especially since a check with Halladay will show them that the design still has some pretty basic problems. Saying this far in advance that they reject the results will leave them wide open to a charge that they're afraid of the truth."
Something in his voice caught my attention. "You sound less optimistic than you did yesterday," I said. "You thinking of calling it off?"
He was silent a long moment. "No, not really. It's just that the whole thing is getting more complicated than I'd envisioned it."
I shrugged. "True—but don't forget that it's your experiment. If you don't want to do things Jordan's way, all you have to do is say so."
"I know. But he's unfortunately got a good point: that if we don't at least take a stab at doing things rigorously, all we're going to do is throw more gasoline at the emotional bonfire." He paused. "Tell me, do you have any relatives or close friends who are pregnant?"
I blinked at the abrupt change of subject. "Yes—four to nine, depending on how close a friend you need."
"Let me have a fast rundown, will you?"
I drove one-handed for a while as I gave him a brief personality sketch of each of the nine women. Afterward he sat silently for several minutes, digesting it all. "What do you think Kathy would say if I asked to be present at her delivery?" he said at last.
"I don't know," I said. "But I know the right person to ask."
We called Kathy as soon as we got back to Dan's office. Though clearly surprised by the request, she agreed to act as Dan's guinea pig, provided her husband didn't object. I got the most recent estimate of her due date—another month—and extracted a promise of secrecy before hanging up. "You going to tell Jordan and Halladay about this?" I asked Dan.
He shook his head. "No, I don't think so. A slip of the tongue could have the entire Fresno chapter of the Family Alliance descending on Kathy's birthing room, and I have no intention of putting the Ausberrys through that."
"Besides which, if you find you can't even read the mind of a baby that's only hours from birth, you don't want anyone to know?" I hazarded.
His slightly pained smile was my only answer.
But the Family Alliance was subtler than we'd expected, and neither of us was prepared for the page-twenty story in the Chronicle the next morning.
"I don't believe this," I fumed, stomping around Dan's office with a copy of the paper gripped tightly in my hand. "How can they print something like this without at least contacting you first?"
"The Lifeline Experiment,' " Dan quoted, reading at his desk. "Gack. Why do newspeople always have to come up with cutesy titles for everything? Contact me? Of course they should have. Obviously, some fine upstanding citizen or group of same convinced them that the story didn't need checking."
"Someone like our Family Alliance friends?" "Undoubtedly. You'll notice they don't include any of the details we discussed yesterday, which implies Halladay has dried up as an information source for them. I guess that's something."
"How can you sit there and take it so calmly?" I snapped, slapping my newspaper down on the desktop for emphasis. "Look: there it is for the whole damn world to see."
He looked up at me. "Simmer down, Iris—the first client's due in ten minutes and the last thing he'll want is to have his head taken off by my secretary. I'm mad, too, but there's nothing we can do now except make sure the experiment comes off as planned."
I was only listening with half an ear. "But why? What did they expect to gain by leaking the story? It's not even particularly slanted."
"Sure it is," Dan contradicted me. "Sixth paragraph, fourth and fifth sentences."
"In addition to his private psychiatric practice, Staley does volunteer counseling once a week at the Rappaport Mental Health Clinic of San Mateo County, which he helped found. He also works frequently with the public defenders office and has worked with the Greenpeace Save-the-Whales Project.' " I rattled off. "So?"
"So someone realized that this was going to be a very difficult experiment to do. So difficult, in fact, that we conceivably might have to give it up—and that someone wanted to make sure I was established in the public mind as a liberal right from the start. A liberal and, by implication, proabortion."
"I still don't see—oh. Sure. If the experiment turns out to be unworkable they'll claim you learned something in the initial stages that clashed with your liberal views on the issue, won't they, and that you backed out because of it."
"Bull's-eye. Or so I'm guessing."
I sat down, my anger replaced by a sudden chill. "Who exactly are we up against here—the Family Alliance or the CIA covert operations group?"
"We're up against people who've been up to their necks in politics for at least a decade," he told me, laying his own paper on top of mine. "Along the way they've probably picked up all the standard political tricks one can employ against an opponent—which is almost funny, since the experiment has just as much chance of supporting their point of view as it has of opposing it."
"One would think they haven't much faith in their beliefs, wouldn't one?" I suggested.
"I think that's a self-contradictory sentence, but you've got the right idea," Dan said, smiling. "And you might remember that any group that size is a mixed bag. Some of the members would probably be madder than you are if they knew what was being tried here." He tapped the newspaper.
Just then there was a knock on the outer office door. "Mr. Raymond's early," I commented, heading out to unlock it.
"No problem," Dan called after me. "You can send him right in."
But it wasn't Raymond, or any of Dan's other clients. It was, instead, a committee of four people.
"We'd like to see Dr. Staley for a moment, if he isn't too busy," their spokeswoman, a young woman with a recognizable face, said briskly. Without waiting for a reply she started forward.
Out in Hayward I'd been taken by surprise, but here in my own office I had better control of things. I remained standing in the doorway, and the woman had to pull up sharply to keep from running into me. "I'm sorry, Ms. McClain, but Dr. Staley is expecting a client," I said firmly. "If you'd like to make an appointment he has an hour available a week from Friday."
It was abundantly clear from her expression that she hadn't expected to be put off like that, but she recovered quickly. "Perhaps Dr. Staley will be able to squeeze us in between appointments later this morning," she said. "Would you tell him Jackie McClain and other representatives of the National Institute for Freedom and Equality are here? We'll wait until he's free."
I couldn't legitimately deny them waiting-room space, so I let them in, hoping that what I knew would be a long wait would discourage them. Three of them did eventually get up and leave, the last one about one o'clock, with whispered apologies to their leader. But McClain stayed all the way until Dan's last client left at five-thirty, a persistence I had to admire. I consulted briefly with Dan and he agreed to see her.
"I'm sorry you had to wait so long, Ms. McClain," he said as we all sat down in his office. "But, as Iris said, this was a particularly long day."
"She's a very efficient secretary," McClain said ambiguously. "I'll get right to the point, Dr. Staley: this so-called Lifeline Experiment. We'd like to know exactly what it is you intend to prove."
Dan frowned. "I'm not out to prove anything, really. I'm simply trying to find where in its development a fetus becomes a human being."
"In what sense? Medical, moral, legal—there are several ways to define human, and they don't necessarily correspond."
"I'm not sure I understand the question," Dan said, frowning a bit.
"Suppose you discover that, in your opinion, human life begins during the third month of pregnancy," McClain said. "The Supreme Court earlier this year stated that abortions through the sixth month are legal, which implies that a fetus is not legally human through that point."
"In that case the law would have to be changed, obviously," I told her.
"Obviously, you've never been pregnant with a child you didn't want," she said, a bit tartly. "A law like that would condemn thousands of women to either the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy and labor or to the danger of an illegal abortion. It would necessarily put the rights of a fetus over those of her mother—a mother whose rights, I'll point out, are clearly and definitely guaranteed by the Constitution."
"I understand all that," Dan said, "but I don't really know what to do about it. I'm not trying to make a legal or political statement with this, though I'm sure others will probably do so. But, then again, shouldn't the law reflect medical realities wherever possible?"
"Yes—but you're talking metaphysics, not medicine," McClain returned. "And as far as the law goes, what right do you or any other man have to tell women what we can or cannot do with our own bodies?"
"Just a second," I put in before Dan could reply. "Aren't we jumping the gun just a little bit here? Dr. Staley hasn't even done the experiment yet and already you're complaining about the results. It's entirely possible that the whole thing will be a boost to your point of view."
"You're right, of course," McClain admitted, cooling down a bit. "I'm sorry, Doctor; I guess I forgot that working with Pamela Halladay didn't automatically mean you were against us."
Dan waved a hand. "That's all right," he said, clearly thankful the argument had been temporarily defused. "I was unaware when we started that Dr. Halladay had strong feelings on the subject, but I'm convinced she'll be able to keep her feelings under wraps."
"I hope so." McClain paused. "I wonder, Doctor, if you would consider allowing a member of NIFE to participate in the planning of your experiment. We have quite a few doctors and other bioscience people who would be qualified to understand and assist in your work."
"Actually, I don't think we really need any help at the moment," Dan said slowly. "There are only a couple of problems to be dealt with, and I'm sure we can find solutions reasonably quickly. If not, I'll keep NIFE in mind."
"Will we at least be permitted to have an observer present during the main part of the experiment?" McClain persisted.
"If it'll make you feel better, sure," Dan said tiredly. "Give Iris your phone number and we'll do our best to keep you informed." She gave me the number and then stood up, her expression that of someone who's gotten more or less what she hoped for. "Thank you for your time, Doctor. I hope this Lifeline Experiment of yours will prove to be something we can wholeheartedly support."
I saw her out and returned to Dan's office. "Is it my imagination," I asked, "or is this project starting to get just a little out of hand?"
He shook his head. "I can't believe it. First the Family Alliance and now NIFE—people are practically standing in line for a chance to complain about the experiment. Is the opportunity to find out the truth really so frightening?"
"I thought all psychologists were cynics," I said. "Of course nobody wants to hear facts that'll contradict their long-held beliefs. And organizations are even worse than individuals."
"I'd rather know what the truth is," he countered. "So would you. Are we the only intellectually honest people around?" He held up a hand. "Skip it. I'm just tired. Let's go somewhere quiet where we won't run into a hit squad from the PTA and get some dinner."
Sometime that evening both the wire services and the major networks picked up on the story, and by the next morning the entire country was hearing about the Lifeline Experiment—the name, unfortunately, having been picked up as well. Commentaries, both pro and con, appeared soon after. Though the publicity was stifling to Dan's everyday work, I think he found a grim sort of amusement in watching the creative ways various organizations phrased their statements so as to condemn the experiment without actually saying they would reject its results. Only the most fanatical were willing—or clumsy enough—to burn such a potentially useful bridge behind them.
The reporters who began hanging around Dan's home and office were more of a nuisance, but Dan had years ago mastered the art of giving newspeople enough to keep them satisfied without unduly encouraging them to keep coming. Fortunately, though, as the initial excitement passed and the experiment itself still seemed far in the nebulous future, the media's interest waned, and within ten days of the story's initial release the reporters' physical presence was replaced by periodic phone calls asking if anything was new. I, at least, was relieved by this procedural change; my friend Kathy would be calling any day now, and I preferred sneaking away from telephones than from people.
Late one evening in the last week of June the call came, and Dan and I drove down to Fresno for the birth of Kathy's third daughter.
It was the first birth I'd ever seen, but even so I gave the main operation scant attention; I was far more interested in what Dan was doing. The obstetrician, a close family friend, had been clued in, but I could still sense his professional uneasiness each time Dan's ungloved hand probed gently into the birth canal. What was visible of Dan's expression above his mask indicated a frown of intense concentration that remained even when his hand had been withdrawn, a look that silenced the questions I was dying to ask. He reached into the canal four times during the labor, and in addition had a hand on the baby's head from its first appearance to the moment when the crying child was laid across her mother's breast.
"What did you find out?" I asked him a few minutes later, after our tactful withdrawal from the birthing room. "Can you reach the baby through its mothers nervous system?"
"Yes," he said, absently picking at a bloodstain he hadn't quite managed to get off his finger. "Once I knew what I was looking for I could find it even with the loud interference from Kathy's mind. I wouldn't want to try it with a baby much farther from term, though—we're still going to have to find a safe way to knock out the mothers."
I nodded. "How about... humanness?"
"No doubt," he said promptly. "Those people who want to believe the first breath is the dividing line are fooling themselves. Elizabeth Anne's mind was as human as ours in there."
" 'Elizabeth Anne'?"
He smiled sheepishly. "Well, that's the name they were planning for a girl. I sort of picked that up along the way." The smile vanished. "Picked it up through a lot of real trauma. I don't think I ever realized before how much it hurts to have a baby—I'm exhausted, and I only got it secondhand."
"Why do you think they call it labor?" I asked, only half humorously. He grimaced, and I quickly changed the subject. "So what does a baby think about in there? I mean, she couldn't have all that much sensory experience to draw on and certainly wouldn't have what we'd consider abstract thoughts."
"Oh, there really was a fair amount of sensory input—tactile and auditory mostly, but taste and even vision also got used some." He shook his head thoughtfully, his forehead corrugated with concentration. "But it wasn't the use of her senses, or even the way that such information was processed that made her a human being. It was—oh, I don't know: a feeling of kinship, I guess I'd have to say. Something familiar in the mental patterns, though I'll be damned if I can describe it."
"Whatever it was didn't change at the actual birth?"
"Not really. There was a sudden sensory overload, of course, but if anything it heightened the feeling..." He trailed off, then abruptly snapped his fingers. "That's what it was. On some very deep level the baby felt herself to be an individual, distinct in some way from the rest of the universe." "I didn't think even young children understood that," I said.
"On a conscious level, no—but that part of the mind seems to be the last to develop, long after the more instinctive levels are firmly in place. Now that I think about it, I've picked up this sense of distinctness in babies before—even in the Kilogram Kids I worked with at Stanford last year—but just never bothered to put a label on it."
I pondered that for a moment. "Is that the yardstick you're going to use, then?"
He shrugged uncomfortably. "Unless I can come up with something better, I guess I'll have to. I know it sounds like pretty flimsy evidence, but it really seems to be an easy characteristic to pick up. And I'm sure I've never felt it in any of the other mammals I've touched."
"Um. It still sounds awfully mystical for an experiment that purports to be scientific."
"I'm sorry," he said with a touch of asperity. "It's the best I can do. If you don't think it's worth anything we can quit right now."
I took his arm, realizing for the first time how heavily the national controversy was weighing on him. "It'll be all right," I soothed him. "As long as people know exactly what you're testing for, no one will be able to claim you misrepresented either yourself or the experiment."
"Yeah." He sighed and looked at his watch. "Two-thirty. No wonder I'm dead tired. Come on, Iris; let's go say goodbye to your friends and get out of here."
For a wonder, the news of our unofficial test run didn't leak to the media at that time, and so Dan was spared the extra attention such a revelation would have generated. As it was, public interest—which had remained at a low level for the past two or three weeks—began to rise again as the procedural problems began to be worked out and Jordan announced a tentative date of July 25 for the experiment to take place.
In light of the recently discovered papers, there is one conversation from that period that I feel must be included in this report.
It took place on the evening of July 12 at the home of Ron Brady and his wife Susan. It had been only the previous day that Halladay's idea of using electrical sleep stimulation had been proved adequate for Dan's needs, removing the final obstacle still holding things up.
"So the Lifeline Experiments going to come off after all," Ron said after the dinner dishes had been cleared and the four of us had settled down in the living room.
Dan nodded. "Looks that way. Eliot and Pam are lining up volunteers now; they expect to have that finished in ten days at the most." He cocked an eyebrow. "You seem disapproving, somehow."
Ron and his wife exchanged glances. "It's not disapproval, exactly," Ron said hesitantly, "and it's certainly not aimed at you. But we are a little worried about the potential influence this one experiment is going to have on the way people think about abortion and human life in general, both here and in other countries."
Dan shrugged. "I'm just trying to inject some facts into the situation. Is influencing people to use rational thought instead of emotion a bad thing?"
"No, of course not," Susan said. "But what you're doing and what the public perceives you as doing are not necessarily the same. You're searching for the place where a fetus's mind becomes human; but a person is more than just his mind. Will the Lifeline Experiment show where the child's soul and spirit enter him? I'm not at all sure it will."
"That almost sounds like quibbling," I pointed out. "If Dan can detect a unique humanness in the mind, isn't that basically the same thing as the soul?"
"I don't know," Susan said frankly. "What's more, I haven't the foggiest idea of how you'd even begin to test that kind of assumption. It's just the fact that the assumption is being made that concerns me."
"The problem we see," Ron put in, "is that the media isn't bothering with this—to us, at least—very important point, but is preparing the public to expect a clear-cut answer to come out of the experiment. What's worse, every organized group that sees support for their point of view will immediately jump on the bandwagon, reinforcing the media's oversimplification. Do you see what I'm getting at?"
"Yes." Dan pulled at his lower lip. "Iris, have I been clear enough with the media as to exactly what the Lifeline Experiment will and won't show?"
Dan had talked to reporters over a hundred times since the story's first appearance; quickly, I played back the relevant parts. "I think so," I said slowly. "Especially since our trip to Fresno."
"The media's not picking up on it," Ron insisted.
I nodded. "He's right, Dan. I haven't seen any major newspaper or TV report even mention questions like Susans, let alone seriously discuss them."
Dan pondered a moment. "Well, what do you think I should do about it? I could yell a little louder, I suppose, but evidence to date indicates that won't do a lot of good." "I tend to agree," Ron said. "You've been something of a folk hero since you fought the National Academy of Sciences and won, but the extremists—on both sides—have louder voices. I'm afraid yours would probably get lost amid the postexperiment gloatings and denunciations."
"Do you think I should cancel the whole thing, then?" Dan asked bluntly.
For a moment there was silence. Then Susan shook her head. "I almost wish you could, or at least that you could postpone it for a while. But at this late date canceling would probably just start fresh rumors, with each faction trying to persuade people that you'd quit because you'd learned something that supported their particular point of view and conflicted with your own."
Dan's own words the morning the story appeared in the Chronicle came back to me; from the look on his face I knew he was remembering them, too. "Yeah," he said slowly. "Yeah, I guess you're right."
I think we all heard the pain in his voice. Susan was the first one to respond to it. "I'm sorry, Dan—we didn't mean to add to the pressure. We're not blaming you for what other people are doing with your words."
"I know," Dan said. "Don't worry about it—the pressure was there long before tonight." He sighed. "I really wasn't expecting it to be so intense, somehow. It wasn't nearly this bad when I was trying to prove my telepathic ability, not even when they were calling me a criminal fraud on network TV I must be getting soft in my old age."
"I doubt it," Ron said. "The problem is more likely that last time you were the only one under the hatchet, so to speak, whereas this time your actions are going to be affecting the lives of others. You're suffering because, whatever happens, the Lifeline Experiment is likely to hurt some group of people. That's an infinitely heavier burden for someone like you than watching your own name dragged through the mud."
Dan nodded. "I wish I'd thought about that two months ago. If I'd known how I'd react, I'd never have started this whole thing in motion."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better," Susan said gently, "it's only because you're so sensitive that Ron and I aren't more worried about the experiment. We can trust you, at least, to be as honest and fair-minded in what you report as is humanly possible."
"Thanks." Dan took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "Let's change the subject, shall we?"
There are films of the Lifeline Experiment itself, of course, films that have been shown endless times over the past twenty years. I have seen them all and do not deny that they adequately portray the physical events that took place on July 25, 1994. But there was more than just a scientific test taking place that day. There was a battle taking place in Dan's own mind, a battle between what his senses told him and what his reason could accept; and it was this unresolved conflict, I know now, that ultimately led to the secret study whose results have only now come to light.
Dan and I arrived at the small lecture room where the experiment was to take place just before one o'clock. The TV and film cameras had long since been set up, and the spectators' gallery was crammed with nearly fifty reporters and representatives of interested groups. I glimpsed Eve Unger, NIFE's handpicked representative, and John Cooper of the Family Alliance sitting several rows apart. Near the front, in seats Dan had had reserved for them, were Ron and Susan Brady.
The front of the room looked uncomfortably like a morgue. Laid out in neat rows were thirty waist-high gurneys, each bearing the form of a sleeping woman. From the neck down each was covered by a pup-tent sort of arrangement designed to give Dan limited access to the area near the uterus while minimizing physical cues that might otherwise influence him. A number was sewn onto each tent, corresponding to a numbered envelope containing the woman's name and length of time she'd been pregnant. At a raised table at one end of the floor sat Jordan, Halladay, and John Cottingham of the Associated Press, who held the stack of envelopes.
"We're all set here, Dan," Jordan said as we reached the table. "You can begin whenever you want."
Dan nodded, and as I slid into my own front-row seat he stepped to the nearest gurney. With a single glance at the cameras, he reached into the tent's access tunnel. Almost immediately he withdrew his hand and silently picked up the number card lying on the gurney beside her. Marking one of the squares on the card, he stepped carefully over the sleep-stimulator wires and walked to the table, placing the card face down in front of Cottingham so that only its number showed. "Is it a boy or a girl, Dr. Staley?" the reporter quipped, sliding the card to one side without turning it over.
"I'm not even going to try to guess, Mr. Cottingham," Dan said. A slightly nervous chuckle rippled through the spectators; but I could see that Dan hadn't meant the comment to be funny. Not even a hint of a smile made it to his face as he walked back to the next gurney. He held the contact a little longer this time, but there was no hesitation I could detect as he picked up her card and marked it. Cottingham didn't try any jokes this time, and Dan went on to the third woman.
All the reports I've ever seen refer to the tension in the room that afternoon; what they don't usually mention is the strangely uneven quality the experimental setup imposed on it. Dan had expected—correctly, as it turned out—that the younger the fetus, the harder it would be to make both the initial contact and the determination of its humanness. But with the random order and the camouflaging tents it was impossible for anyone watching to tell how far along a given mother was. With some, the spectators would barely have settled into a watchful silence before Dan was walking away with the card; but with others, he would stand motionlessly for minutes at a time as the tension slowly grew more and more oppressive. At those times, his movement toward the card was like a lifting of Medusas curse, and there would be a brief flurry of noise as people shifted in their seats and whispered comments to each other. The reprieve would last until Dan started his next contact, and the tension would then begin its slow rise again.
The first forty-five minutes went smoothly enough, both Dan and the spectators quickly growing more or less accustomed to the emotional roller coaster ride we were on. Dan made decisions on seventeen fetuses during that time, and while he was clearly not having fun up there, I could tell from his face that he was holding up reasonably well against the pressure.
The eighteenth subject changed all that.
Dan stood by her for nearly five minutes, his face rigid with concentration and something else. Finally, leaving her card untouched on the gurney, he stepped over to the table. "There's something wrong," he said, his voice low but audible from where I was sitting. "I can't find any life at all in there. I think the fetus must be dead. I... please don't release the moth—the woman's name. It's going to be hard enough on her as it is."
Jordan tapped Cottingham's arm and muttered something. The reporter grimaced slightly, but gamely shuffled out the proper envelope and opened it. His frown vanished as he read the contents and he smiled wryly. "Number twenty- eight. Linda Smith; not pregnant. Control."
There was a collective sigh of released tension. An unreadable expression flickered across Dan's face as he glanced at Jordan and Halladay. Then, clamping his jaw tightly, he walked back to the gurneys. To others in the room he may have simply looked determined—but I knew better. He was flustered, and flustered badly. He'd counseled several women in the past who'd given birth to stillborn children, and dropping the memory of that trauma into the middle of an already emotional experience must have been like a kick in the head. The fact that he obviously hadn't even considered the possibility of a control was clear evidence of his overwrought state. I wondered briefly if he would call for a break, but I already knew that he wouldn't permit himself that luxury. He had fought hard these past few weeks to portray himself as a calm, dispassionate scientist who could make the Lifeline Experiment a genuinely impartial search for truth, and he would turn his stomach into a massive ulcer before he would undermine that effort with even a suggestion of weakness.
From that point on, Dan's face was a granite mask, and for the next forty minutes I sat helplessly by, grinding my fingernails into my palms.
The silence in the room as Dan handed Cottingham the last card was so complete that I could clearly hear the ticking of Jordan's antique wristwatch. Picking up the first of his envelopes, Cottingham opened it. "Number twenty- three," he read into the microphone, enunciating his words carefully. "Alice Grant; nine months pregnant." Reaching to the line of cards in front of him, he turned the corresponding one over. "Human," he read. Card and envelope went to one side, and as he opened the second envelope I shifted my attention to Dan. He had stepped back among the gurneys and was watching Cottingham, his expression calm but with a strange, brittle quality to it that sent a sudden shiver up my back. "Number one. Vicki Thuma; eight and a half months pregnant," Cottingham read. Pause. "Human."
One by one he worked his way down the stack, finishing with the third- trimester mothers and starting on those in their second three months... and as each card he picked up identified the child as fully human, the silence began to give way to a buzz of unsure conversation. Cottingham read on; and as he reached the first-trimester women the buzz took on edges of both triumphant and angry disbelief. No one, I sensed, had really expected the result that was unfolding.
He reached the last envelope, and as he tore it open the room suddenly became quiet again. "Number fourteen. Barbara Remington: five weeks pregnant." His hand was trembling just slightly as he turned over the final card. "Human. Human," he repeated, as if not quite believing it.
"That's impossible!" Eve Unger's clear voice cut through the silence, a fraction of a second before the whole room exploded into pandemonium. "A fetus's brain has hardly started development at five weeks," she shouted over the din. "It's a fraud—Staley's been bought by the Family Alliance!"
Dan didn't reply, though anything he said would have been inaudible anyway through the accusations, claims, and counterclaims filling the air like opposing mortar barrages. He just stood there, looking up at the NIFE representative, his expression still calm. He knew what he'd seen and would not be moved from his testimony. And yet, as I look back on his face now, I can see the faintest hint of the uneasiness—the knowledge that what she said made sense—that I now know must have haunted the last fifteen years of his life.
Of the aftermath there is little that isn't common knowledge. Though the Lifeline Experiment carried no legal weight whatsoever, it was very clearly the rallying point for the final successful drive that established the Fetal Rights Amendment in the Constitution. But the bitter struggle that surrounded the issue made it a Pyrrhic victory at best, threatening at times to tear the country apart as had no issue since the Vietnam War. It was too much for Dan to bear at close range, and for eight years after the experiment he remained outside the country, living in self-imposed seclusion in Australia. I think that the only thing that got him through that period was the knowledge that he had seen humanity in those tiny bits of new life, and that whatever the cost he had done the right thing. Eventually things settled down, the proabortion forces gradually losing strength as grudging acceptance of the new law grew, until they became the vocal but powerless minority of the present day. And I wish with all my heart the controversy could be left alone to continue its slow death.
But it can't.
I enclose the following excerpt from Dan's papers with a feeling of dread, remembering the agony of the past two decades as few others remember it and knowing that my action is likely to rekindle the fires again. But above all other things Dan prized his reputation for honesty, and it is solely because of this that I quote here the last entry from his private journal, made just two days before the car accident that took his life. I believe that, given the time, he would have come to the same conclusion.
October 18, 2009: I have been sitting here since the sky first began to show the colors of sunset, wondering how to write this. The stars now shine brightly where I watched the sun go down, and I am no nearer to finding a way to ease the shock of what my seven- year study has shown me... to finding a less brutal way to confess what I have unwittingly done to all the people who trusted me.
There can be no further doubt as to what I have done. Linda
Grant, whose mother was nine months pregnant at the experiment,
shows virtually none of the traits I myself showed as a teenager; at
the other end of the scale Tom Remington, whose mother was only
five weeks along, is so like me it is agonizing to watch him. Only
today I learned that, while he has my passionate love of basketball,
he does not intend to try out for the school team, despite his skill
and height. There is no reason why he would not do well at the
game... except that I was a mere five foot six at his age and
convinced I could never play. All the rest of them fell somewhere
between these two extremes, their individual degrees of mimicry
directly correlated with their ages at the experiment... and for what
I've done to these children alone I owe a debt I'll never be able to
repay. What I've done to the country and the millions of women
whose lives my naivete had changed—I can't even comprehend the
enormity of my crime.
My crime. The word is harsh, unforgiving. But I can't justify it as anything else. In my foolish arrogance I assumed the universe was simple, that its secrets were absolute and could be had for the asking. Worse yet, I assumed it would bend its own rules just for my convenience.
The experimenter influences his experiment. How long has that truth been known? Close to a hundred years, I'm sure, at least since the earliest beginnings of quantum mechanics. Such a simple thing... and yet neither I nor any of those I worked with ever even bothered to consider what it might mean to us.
The Lifeline Experiment was doomed from the very beginning. Young minds, their development barely started—how could they fail to be overwhelmed as I touched them with what must have been the delicacy of an elephant? That flicker of humanness I saw in each fetus—how much of that was innate and how much merely my own imposed reflection? I'll never know. No one ever will. My very presence obliterated the line I was trying to find.
And in the meantime I have helped to force what is essentially an arbitrary decision on the country. What should I do with this knowledge? Do I keep it to myself and allow the lie to continue, or do I speak out and risk tearing the society apart once again?
I wish I knew the answer.
The abortion issue is one of a growing list of topics these days in which middle ground is increasingly hard to find. Both extremes are vocal, organized, and often—in my opinion—inconsistent in their overall world views, and I had little doubt that "Lifeline" would generate a minor avalanche of hate mail from both ends of the target range.
And I was wrong. I got a couple of letters, Analog printed a couple more, and all of them were polite enough as they springboarded off the story to state their own views on the topic.
Heartening? Certainly. It may imply that SF readers tend to be, by and large, reasonable people; less inclined than the average American, perhaps, to let emotions or national spokespersons define their thoughts for them. But then again, people who like idea- oriented literature are, almost by definition, more likely to try and treat abortion as an intellectual problem. An intellectual problem, with an intellectual solution.
So did I default on my own responsibility as a writer of idea- oriented fiction by, in effect, straddling the fence? I don't think so. The abortion issue simply has too much of a philosophical, religious nature embedded in it to yield to a simple, logical solution, much as I might wish otherwise.