Beginning in 1982 the Reagan administration tried to impose federal regulations (based on the civil rights approach of Section 504) on the medical treatment of handicapped newborns in the nation's hospitals. After issuing three sets of regulations, the administration found itself rebuffed by the courts and in ill repute with providers and parts of the public, especially after its widely publicized intervention in the case of Baby Jane Doe illustrated the pitfalls of federal regulation in complex medical decisions. Congress, however, soon enacted legislation employing different means to protect handicapped newborns. The episode offers insights into the dynamics of the U.S. system of separated powers, the limitations of the “civil rights” approach, and the importance of negotiating structures for the resolution of private moral dilemmas with public implications.

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