Christiane Nusslein-Volhard studied how genes control embryonic development in flies and in fish in Europe during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the 1970s, Nusslein-Volhard focused her career on studying the genetic control of development in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. In 1988, Nusslein-Volhard identified the first described morphogen, a protein coded by the gene bicoid in flies. In 1995, along with Eric F. Wieschaus and Edward B. Lewis, she received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of genes that establish the body plan and segmentation in Drosophila. Nusslein-Volhard also investigated the genetic control of embryonic development to zebrafish, further generalizing her findings and helping establishing zebrafish as a model organism for studies of vertebrate development.

The New York Court of Appeals' 1983 case Weber v. Stony Brook set an important precedent upholding the right of parents to make medical decisions for newborns born with severe congenital defects. A pro-life New York attorney, Lawrence Washburn, attempted to legally intervene in the case of Baby Jane Doe, an infant born with disorders. When the infant's parents chose palliative care over intensive corrective surgery, Washburn made repeated attempts to have the New York courts force through the surgery. The Court of Appeals ultimately ruled not only that Washburn had overstepped his authority, but also that the parents' decision was a medically and legally valid one. The Weber case set an important standard for protecting the rights of parents and limiting the rights of government to make medical decisions for infants with severe congenital defects.

The source-sink model, first proposed by biologist Francis Crick in 1970, is a theoretical system for how morphogens distribute themselves across small fields of early embryonic cells. A morphogen is a substance that determines the fate and phenotype of a group of cells through a concentration gradient of itself across that group. Crick’s theory has been experimentally confirmed with several morphogens, most notably with the protein bicoid , the first discovered morphogen. The model provides a theoretical structure for the understanding of some features of early embryonic development.

Bicoid is the protein product of a maternal-effect gene unique to flies of the genus Drosophila . In 1988 Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard identified bicoid as the first known morphogen . A morphogen is a molecule that determines the fate and phenotype of a group of cells through a concentration gradient across that developing region. The bicoid gradient, which extends across the anterior-posterior axis of Drosophila embryos, organizes the head and thorax.

The French flag model represents how embryonic cells receive and respond to genetic information and subsequently differentiate into patterns. Created by Lewis Wolpert in the late 1960s, the model uses the French tricolor flag as visual representation to explain how embryonic cells can interpret genetic code to create the same pattern even when certain pieces of the embryo are removed. Wolpert's model has provided crucial theoretical framework for investigating universal mechanisms of pattern formation during development.

The 1986 US Supreme Court decision Bowen v. American Hospital Association rejected the federal government's use of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to intervene in a hospital's treatment for neonates born with severe congenital defects. This case set a precedent for the role of government involvement in cases where parents refused consent for care of disabled newborns.

The Baby Doe Rules represent the first attempt by the US government to directly intervene in treatment options for neonates born with congenital defects. The name of the rule comes from the controversial 1982 case of a Bloomington, Indiana infant Baby Doe, a name coined by the media. The Baby Doe Rules mandate that, as a requirement for federal funding, hospitals and physicians must provide maximal care to any impaired infant, unless select exceptions are met. If a physician or parent chooses to withhold full treatment when the exceptions are not met, they are liable for medical neglect. After a prolonged legal battle, President Ronald Reagan signed the law on 9 October 1984 as an amendment to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) of 1974. Since then, the Baby Doe Rules have influenced both the parents' right to make medical decisions for their child and the way laws can affect treatment options in the US.

The US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals' 1984 decision United States v. University Hospital, State University Hospital of New York at Stony Brook set a significant precedent for affirming parental privilege to make medical decisions for handicapped newborns, while limiting the ability of the federal government to intervene. The ruling stemmed from the 1983 case involving an infant born with severe physical and mental congenital defects; the infant was only identified as Baby Jane Doe. After her parents opted against corrective surgery for some of her deformities, Baby Jane Doe became the epicenter of a national right-to-life debate that had been previously sparked one year prior with the case of Baby Doe, an Indiana infant born with similarly severe handicaps.

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