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Respectable Baby Killing
Support builds for legalizing euthanasia for ill and disabled newborns.


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Wesley J. Smith

The push to permit infanticide has entered the mainstream. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology (RCOG) has recommended that a debate be had about whether to permit “deliberate interventions to kill infants.” The recommendation, which was widely reported in the media, was in response to a query from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics concerning ethical issues pertaining to health care which prolongs the life of newborns. It was at the urging of the RCOG that euthanasia of infants was added to the topics that the council would consider. As reported by the London Times, the RCOG’s recommendation states:

A very disabled child can mean a disabled family. If life-shortening and deliberate interventions to kill infants were available, they might have an impact on obstetric decision-making, even preventing some late term abortions, as some parents would be more confident about continuing a pregnancy and taking a risk on outcome.

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The article goes on to quote a number of British doctors and professors who support euthanasia.

Consider carefully what has happened here. A prestigious medical association has seriously suggested that killing some babies because they are seriously ill or disabled might be ethically acceptable and, at the very least, is worthy of considered and respectable debate. It is about time that people start paying attention to this. Those who think that legal infanticide is unthinkable and preposterous are being naïve. Infanticide advocacy is no longer limited to rogue bioethicists, such as Princeton University’s notorious Peter Singer, who has famously argued that parents be given as much as a year to decide whether to keep or kill their babies.

In fact, it has been some time since Singer was the dominant voice of infanticide advocacy. In recent years, articles aimed at normalizing the killing of disabled babies have appeared in some of the world’s most established medical publications. For example, the March 10, 2005, edition of the New England Journal of Medicine published an article by Dutch physicians who have admitted to having euthanized 15-20 disabled infants. The NEJM provided them with a respectable forum in which to propose formal regulations to govern what amounts to eugenic infanticide. The so-called “Groningen Protocol” (named after the Dutch hospital where the infanticides took place) posits three categories of killable infants: babies “with no chance of survival”; infants with a “poor prognosis and [who] are dependent on intensive care”; and “infants with a hopeless prognosis,” including those “not depending on intensive medical treatment but for whom a very poor quality of life…is predicted.”

Such journal articles were reported on approvingly in the mainstream media. For example, the July 10, 2005, New York Times Magazine published a column by frequent contributor Jim Holt proposing the merits of the Groningen Protocol. Holt suggested that the decision to kill ill or disabled babies should be governed by “a new moral duty,” namely, “the duty prevent suffering, especially futile suffering.”

The debate over infant euthanasia is usually framed as a collision between two values: sanctity of life and quality of life. Judgments about the latter, of course, are notoriously subjective and can lead you down a slippery slope. But shifting the emphasis to suffering changes the terms of the debate. To keep alive an infant whose short life expectancy will be dominated by pain — pain that it can neither bear nor comprehend — is, it might be argued, to do that infant a continuous injury.

At first blush, this might seem reasonable, but Holt’s game of semantics does not provide him with traction on the slippery slope. The concept of suffering is not limited to pain, but must also take account of “quality of life,” as more liberal advocates of infanticide would surely point out. More insidiously, Holt’s advocacy could lead to a perceived duty to kill disabled babies since he argues that not killing a disabled baby could be to inflict injury upon the child.

Such arguments are really a veneer for the real issues, which are money and commitment. Disabled infants are expensive to care for, particularly if they don’t die young, and they require all sorts of attention. The nub of the issue isn’t about our supposed inability to alleviate the suffering of infants — a false supposition– but rather, about our not wanting to spend the financial and emotional resources it would take to do so. This position is clearly central to the RCOG’s statement — and was explicitly ratified in a November 9, 2006, editorial in The Economist calling the RCOG’s call to debate infanticide “brave” and urging that infanticide be seriously considered because “Disabled children are nine times more likely than others to end up in the care of the state.”

Infanticide, alas, has become a respectable notion, at least among some elite opinion makers. History shows that this is how baby killing begins — by convincing ourselves that there is such a thing as a human life not worth living, and hence, not worth protecting. By calling for a serious debate about infanticide, the RCOG has badly subverted the foundational moral principle that each and every human being has equal moral value simply and merely because he or she is human.

— Wesley J. Smith, a frequent contributor to NRO, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His website is www.wesleyjsmith.com.



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