15 Dec 2022

How the case of Baby W made global headlines

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 15 December 2022

The Detail looks at what the case of Baby W tells us about power, personal convictions, and misinformation in 2022.

e Whatu Ora is taking a case against parents who are refusing to allow blood from vaccinated people to be used during their baby's life-saving heart operation.

Photo: RNZ / Mohammad Alafeshat

In a sense, the case of Baby W - unedifying though it might've been - panned out how you'd expect it to.

A young baby requires surgery; the surgery requires a blood transfusion.

The parents, who are vaccine-hesitant, don't want to use blood from the general pool. 

"They had no objection to the surgery whatsoever - the only aspect of it they don't agree with is the use of blood from potentially vaccinated people," says Stuff's Charlie Mitchell. 

"They sought a way around this by getting their own direct blood donors who are unvaccinated - that was their proposed workaround."

But the Blood Service, fearing the precedent this could set, refuses to allow that to happen. 

"Their stated reason is because the Blood Service does not, as a rule, differentiate between different characteristics of people who donate blood. It all goes into a general pool, it's all treated, and it's all treated as fine," Mitchell explains.

"There's also this precedent they don't particularly want to set, where people are choosing different types of blood donors based on characteristics that are not actually medically meaningful. 

"It was raised in court: what if somebody only wanted a blood transfusion from people with blood from a certain ethnicity, for example."

The state - in the form of Te Whatu Ora - applies to the High Court for guardianship of the baby so the operation could proceed. The court assented, the operation took place.

But mixed up in all of this is a story of personal convictions, misinformation, opportunism, the imbalance of power, and media attention with a wider agenda. 

Baby W's parents (both the baby's name and the parents' names are suppressed) ended up closely interlinked with former newsreader Liz Gunn, who's now an active figure in alternative media channels.

Gunn's appearances on outlets such as Counterspin Media and InfoWars - which is helmed by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones - threw the case into both the local and international spotlight.

"Alex Jones is comparing the doctors at Starship Hospital to Josef Mengele and saying they're doing Nazi-style medical experiments on the baby.

"Liz Gunn compares the baby to Jesus Christ...and it sort of escalates things in a way that hadn’t happened previously. Like, it's one thing to go on Counterspin Media - which is pretty small and local - it's another to go on InfoWars and project these claims to a very large audience."

Mitchell says given the polarised environment around vaccinations and other touchstone issues he expects other, similar cases to emerge over the coming months and years. 

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