Published May 06, 2009
Nearly 10 years after a stunning photograph of his tiny hand traveled the world, Samuel Armas has a firm grip on what "The Hand of Hope" means to him.
"When I see that picture, the first thing I think of is how special and lucky I am to have God use me that way," Samuel told FOXNews.com. "I feel very thankful that I was in that picture."
On Aug. 19, 1999, photographer Michael Clancy shot the "Fetal Hand Grasp" — his picture of a 21-week-old fetus grasping a doctor's finger during innovative surgery to correct spina bifida. Nearly four months later, on Dec. 2, Samuel Armas was "born famous."
The photo, which first appeared in USA Today on Sept. 7, 1999, quickly spread across the globe as proof of development in the womb and was later cited during congressional debates on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which passed in 2000.
"It's just a miracle picture, a miracle moment," Clancy told FOXNews.com. "It shows the earliest human interaction ever recorded."
Samuel, now 9 and living in Villa Rica, Ga., said the photo likely gave countless "babies their right to live" and forced many others to debate their beliefs on abortion, something he's proud of.
"It's very important to me," Samuel said of the photograph. "A lot of babies would've lost their lives if that didn't happen."
Julie Armas, Samuel's mother, said her eldest son has a "very strong sense of right and wrong" and understands the impact of his unconventional first baby photo.
"He identifies it more in terms of a pro-life message more than anything," she told FOXNews.com. "This photo happened and God used it to show people that this baby in mom's tummy is alive. He's pleased that his photo conveyed that message."
Armas said Samuel will wear lower leg braces for the rest of his life as a result of spina bifida, which occurs when the spine fails to close properly during early pregnancy. He'll also use a wheelchair during long trips, as he did at Great Adventure earlier this week. But the mother of three said Samuel "walks great" and has been lucky enough to avoid some surgeries associated with his condition.
"He's doing extremely well," she told FOXNews.com. "We pray that he continues to be as healthy and able as he has been."
Samuel's condition hasn't slowed his activities as a decorated Cub Scout or in the swimming pool, where he took first place last weekend in a 25-yard backstroke event.
"I love to swim," Samuel said of his typical Saturday activity. "You use your arms a lot and it gives your arms great muscles."
The third-grader also loves science and animals, especially orcas, bald eagles and tigers. And he still collects bugs, something his father, Alex, revealed during a Senate hearing in 2003 to highlight advances in fetal surgery.
"Anything we see, he wants to catch and put it in a jar to watch it," Julie Armas said. "He's a great kid, he really is. He's very gentle; he's very laid-back."
Clancy, who hasn't photographed a surgery since Samuel's, recalled meeting him for just the third time in 2007 during an event for Come Alive Ministries in Atlanta.
"His eyes just lit up because he was born famous because of that picture," Clancy told FOXNews.com. "It was amazing."
Clancy, who was a freelancer for USA Today when he photographed Samuel's fully-formed hand, now works as a motivational speaker at pro-life events. Prior to the picture, Clancy said, he was pro-choice.
"And that's what I'm going to do, keep telling this story," he said. "It can change people's hearts. What started off as an assignment turned into a responsibility to keep telling the story behind it."
A crucial part of the story, Clancy argues, is whether Samuel reached through the 8-inch opening in his mother's uterus and grabbed Dr. Joseph Bruner's hand, or if the doctor manipulated the hand during surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee.
"I could see the uterus shake violently and then this little fist came out of the surgical opening," Clancy recalls. "It came out under its own power. When Dr. Bruner lifted the little hand, I fired my camera and the tighter Samuel squeezed, the harder Dr. Bruner shook his hand."
Bruner, who could not be reached for comment, has told reporters that Samuel and his mother were under anesthesia and could not move. In a Jan. 9, 2000, article in The Tennessean, he said he pulled Samuel's hand out of the uterus, further complicating the debate surrounding the photograph.
But none of that matters to Julie Armas. Samuel continues to thrive, and he is leading the way for his 3-year-old brother, Zachary, who also has spina bifida.
"I don't care, honestly," Julie Armas said. "What I felt the picture showed is that this is a child engaging in some form of interaction. I'm a labor and delivery nurse, so I understand that Samuel was anesthetized to some degree.
"So if he reached out, I don't know. If Dr. Bruner reached out, I don't know. The fact of the matter is it's a child with a hand, with a life, and that's meaningful enough."