‘A child who has just been born is incubated and ventilated. The child presented multi-system organ failure and the morphotype of a child carrying Down’s syndrome.’ This is usually detected during prenatal ultrasounds and parents are given the opportunity at this time to abort the baby.
‘My boss took it (the mother’s remaining epidural) and then injected the child, who died in a minute or two alone. As the child lay dying, the two doctors were talking, without any discomfort and with no regard for this baby. As for the parents, they were informed about the health status of their child after his death.’
Infant euthanasia is widely illegal around the globeGenerally, law around the world and countries which adhere to the Convention on the Rights of the Child dictate that a child, once born, is for all intents and purposes an actual person and therefore entitled to basic human rights, including the right to live. By injecting him, the doctor denied the child the right to potential survival through medical treatment and the parents their right to raise a child with Down’s Syndrome.
Euthanasia for infants is banned in most countries because babies cannot accurately communicate their level of suffering, leaving doctors to only predict whether the child’s future quality of life will be bearable or not. Presumption on the part of medical health professionals could negatively impact staff who may have to live with the guilt that a child they put to death could have lived a full life. It is an extremely difficult decision to make, as indicators of future quality of life are not always foolproof.
Should the option be available, parents may also feel pressured into taking it to prevent themselves becoming a burden on health and social services. As Santonu Biswas, a general practitioner in the UK explains, “It is important as a doctor not to impose one’s own opinion or society’s bias onto a patient.
“The fact that most disabled individuals go on to lead normal and fulfilling lives and that having a disabled child does not make them an abnormal family should be discussed with the parents alongside the specifics of the disability.”
The case for infanticideIn the Netherlands, a very different approach is taken. Euthanasia for infants is legal provided there is no hope for survival or respite for the child. To allow for this however, a very strict legal procedure is implemented that includes a post-death investigation into whether it was justified and correctly executed or not. Conducted like this, it appears to provide relief and closure for families for whom seeing their newborn suffer is severally damaging and sometime is a moral nightmare.
There is always a more radical opinion on the flip side however and a paper published in 2012 drew tremendous criticism from both the science community and greater society for its assertion that since newborns are not fully self-aware, they are not warranting of the moral status of ‘actual persons’.
The paper called them ‘potential persons’ and thus deemed them the same as fetuses. Following the logic that abortion is legal, they believe that killing the newborn, (either because of disability or because of the mother’s refusal to keep the child), should also be legal. The writers termed this form of infanticide as an ‘after-birth abortion’, a viewpoint which is gaining increasing momentum in the academic world.
Is it simply a need for better regulation in determining the potential quality of a disabled child’s life? Or is it a question of at what age an infant is considered an individual person worthy of basic human rights? Perhaps it is a question about the sanctity of life and we must all ask ourselves: where do we draw the line? MIMS
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