This debate is not for the weak hearted.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology, United Kingdom, has suggested a debate on whether or not to allow euthanasia of severely disabled babies, who could barely be kept alive with artificial life-support systems and/or financially debilitating treatment. The College explained this in a submission to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics:
We would like the working party to think more radically about non-resuscitation, withdrawal of treatment decisions, the best interests test and active euthanasia as they are ways of widening the management options available to the sickest of newborns.
The debate is somewhat related to the subject of two of my previous posts, "Children of a Lesser Science" and "Sophie's Choice? Not Quite!". My posts did not start any serious debate, so I don't want to miss out on the opportunity offered by the RCOG!
The college lists a couple of reasons why euthanasia should be given any consideration at all. First, the families of the babies, are suffering enormously, both emotionally and financially. Second, RCOG believes that "if obstetricians were allowed to carry out active euthanasia, some patients would be more inclined to wait till birth, rather than carrying out late abortions." The first reason pits the baby's right to live against their family's right to live. If the former were given priority, then, under the circumstances, it's quite clear that neither the baby nor the family will have any life. The right to live is, therefore, a moot point, unless the society, that is, the rest of us, are willing to bear, at a minimum, the financial burden of keeping the babies alive. It is difficult, but not impossible, to conceive of ways by which the emotional burden could be shared as well.
I am a bit confused about the second reason that the College has given for euthanasia to be considered. Is the intent here to avoid late term abortions, because it is controversial? Or, is it that the RCOG would like the mother to be given a choice to terminate the pregnancy immediately, instead of waiting until the baby is born to resolve any residual uncertainty about the baby's condition? I am assuming that it's the latter, considering that the U.K. law correct me if I am wrong permits late term abortions without any time limit in case of fetal abnormality. It remains, however, the mother's prerogative to decide whether more information is worth the price she pays in carrying the fetus to full term.
The Independent quotes John Harris, a member of the official Human Genetics Commission and professor of bioethics at Manchester University, as welcoming the debate:
"We can terminate for serious foetal abnormality up to term, but cannot kill a newborn," he told The Sunday Times. "What do people think has happened in the passage down the birth canal to make it OK to kill the foetus at one end of the birth canal but not the other?"
Well, something does happen as the baby leaves the inalienable property of the mother. I think there is a qualitative change, and, at a minimum, the implicit or explicit contract between the mother and the father, if any, will come into picture. The mother is no longer the sole arbiter of the baby's fate. Others' interests, including those of the baby, must be considered.
Expressing an opposing view on the subject, Simone Aspis of the British Council of Disabled People said,
"It is not for medical professionals or indeed anyone else like families to determine whether someone else's quality of life will be good simply on the grounds of impairment or health condition."Nor is it for one disabled adult to speak for the quality of life of another. If the euthanasia of the disabled baby were perceived to diminish the value of the surviving disabled adults, as Aspis has contended, I believe that they should seek their redress elsewhere, not from the baby and its family. Where does that leave us, because the baby cannot speak, and has not spoken, for itself? Is it reasonable to assume that the parents are the second best spokespersons for the baby? Can we extend the arguments for the euthanasia of Terry Schiao to this? I think so.