Euthanasia for Minors: The Drumbeat Continues
A Belgian website features a picture of a hospital bed with some stuffed toys on it. The picture is captioned: “the latest news on the euthanasia front (from a so-called ‘civilized’ country).”1 The image vividly captures the current drumbeat for the euthanasia of minors.2
The August 4 New York Times fired an American volley in support of letting premature babies die. Using as a backdrop the fiftieth anniversary of the premature birth of John F. Kennedy’s son Patrick, who died after two days, Emory University neonatologist April Dworetz asks, “why do we keep these babies alive?”3
Actually, that question was originally posed to Dr. Dworetz by a distraught father of an “extremely immature” baby, but the question could be hers as well. Granted, she concedes, “were he born today, Patrick, who was delivered at 34 weeks gestation, would very likely survive and have a healthy life, too.” But she immediately follows up with the hard case of a little girl born at 23 weeks who required significant medical intervention. In the end that little girl, who she calls Miracle, “will likely survive,” albeit with chronic lung disease.
The difference, however, is that fifty years ago, any child dying was a tragedy. Today, there is plenty of opinion ready to declare that certain children would be better off dead. Consider how Dr. Dworetz frames the question: “Some parents believe that withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment will prevent their infant from suffering and living a life not worth living; others consider it murder.”
I didn’t know murder was a matter of opinion.
Becoming the parent of a child who is likely to be disabled or maybe even die relatively quickly is indeed a cross but, unlike fifty years ago, now a parent may also have to face a doctor who doesn’t believe in treating a baby with such a prognosis. Forget the traditional image of the doctor locked in an epic battle with death as the enemy to be vanquished. Medical “progress” today regards death as a preferred outcome, a treatment, a proper response to “wrongful life.”
Dr. Dworetz does make the obligatory feint towards “informed consent.” “Ultimately,” she writes, “parents have the right to decide, but we physicians must help them make informed decisions.” Well, yes and no. Parents certainly have a right to make decisions about their minor child’s medical care. (Except, of course, when it comes to abortion; depending on the state they reside in, parents may not even have a right simply to be informed of a grandchild’s “termination.”) But there have always been limits to parental discretion, e.g., when Jehovah’s Witnesses refused blood transfusions for Rh factor complications, courts declared the State a temporary guardian in order to protect the baby’s life. Today, some medical authorities would like to invert that preferential option for life, arguing that if parents insist their disabled child receive care a doctor considers to be “futile,” the doctor may refuse their request.4 In the likelihood of treatment rationing under Obamacare, the pressure to do so will likely only grow.
Post-natal “informed consent” is, of course, usually too late, so Dr. Dworetz’s op-ed has the necessary paragraph about appropriate counseling before birth (when, presumably, the handicap can be eliminated by eliminating the handicapped):
[W]hen in the first trimester obstetricians talk with pregnant women and their partners about testing for genetic anomalies, they should include discussion of values and attitudes toward life, death, and disability . . . Certainly parents at high risk of giving birth to premature babies, or to babies with severe congenital defects, should receive such counseling, including from neonatologists and other specialists.
During his first term in office, Ronald Reagan promulgated the “Baby Doe” regulations, which declared that “treating” a handicapped newborn by starving him to death was not “therapy” but blatant discrimination against the disabled and therefore illegal. There are, of course, those who rejected that conclusion.5 But, thanks to Supreme Court sanctioned abortion on demand, the question of discrimination doesn’t arise when it comes to eugenic abortion, that is, the legal extermination of physically or genetically damaged unborn babies.
The most shocking admission in the Dworetz piece comes towards the end, when she ventures that we doctors need to do more than inform. On occasion, I’ve offered to make a life-or-death decision for parents. If they agree, they are essentially making the decision, but are shifting the burden to me. It’s harder for parents to say “I unplugged my baby” than to let the doctor do it.
Shocking, because under a veneer of compassionate reasonableness what she’s really advocating is euthanasia at the discretion of the physician. As the Dutch experience with euthanasia has shown, when doctors are granted such life-and-death power it isn’t long before some of them will act without family approval. Dr. Dworetz concludes:
Our culture is slowly growing more comfortable talking about end-of-life issues as they relate to the elderly: whether to allow a natural death or prolong life even if it means suffering.
In my world, though, the “surrogate” decision makers are young parents of [extremely premature] infants like Miracle. And they are still completely unprepared. It’s time we broaden the discussion to include them.
A society tobogganing down the slippery slope of the culture of death is “growing more comfortable” with death as a “treatment” option. I was born three years before Patrick Kennedy, and at about 32-33 weeks. In those days, my survival was extraordinary, as was my mother’s, who came down with jaundice. But I thank God I was born when doctors didn’t think death was an option. Please don’t refer me—or my three children—to one of these modern practitioners.
 “Euthanasie: en Belgique et aux Pays-Bays, on sacrifie les enfants pour soulager les parents!” [Euthanasia: Children in Belgium and the Netherlands are Sacrificed to Relieve Parents!] Available at: http://www.aleteia.org/fr/sante/actualites/euthanasie-en-belgique-et-aux-pays-bas-on-sacrifie-les-enfants-pour-soulager-les-parents-2104001 (accessed August 11, 2013, 1200 GMT).
 See “L’expression de voix discordantes dans la coalition gouvernementale a entraîné le report des débats” [on the ongoing Belgian governmental debate to legalize euthanasia for minors], available at http://www.la-croix.com/Actualite/France/L-idee-d-elargir-l-euthanasie-aux-mineurs-divise-la-Belgique-2013-07-01-980896 (accessed August 11, 2013, 1200 GMT).
 April Dworetz, “End of Life, at Birth,” The New York Times, August 4, 2013. All quotations from this article to this text.
 Wesley Smith, “Death by Ethics Committee,” National Review, April 27, 2006, available at: http://old.nationalreview.com/smithw/smith200604271406.asp (accessed August 11, 20134, 1215 GMT); Smith, “AMA Wants Doctors to Ration Care,” August 9, 2013, available at http://www.nationalreview.com/human-exceptionalism (accessed August 11, 2013, 1217 GMT).
 See, e.g. Jon Tyson, “Evidence Based Ethics and the Care of Premature Infants,” Low Birth Weight, 5 (1995)/1, available at: http://futureofchildren.org/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=60&articleid=380§ionid=2566 (accessed May 19, 2013, 1100 GMT). Classical statements in favor of euthanasia for newborns include, e.g., Helga Kuhse, Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Newborns (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Michael Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). In early 2013, the Polish Episcopate, in its pastoral letter on bioethical issues, warned against a society rapidly advancing towards accepting “the position of the absolute domination of the strong over the weak, adults over the unborn, the healthy over the sick.” Polish Episcopate, “O wyzwaniach bioetycznych, przed którymi stoi współczesny człowiek” [On the Bioethical Challenges Confronting Modern Man], document issued March 5, 2013, available at: http://episkopat.pl/dokumenty/pozostale/5066.5,O_wyzwaniach_bioetycznych_przed_ktorymi_stoi_wspolczesny_czlowiek.html (accessed May 27, 2013, 1300 GMT), translation mine.
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John M. Grondelski is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey (USA).