Politics & Policy

Chilling Protocol

Ending young life--now, and even here.

When little Chanou was born in 2000 with a rare and painful illness that leads to abnormal bone development, doctors gave the Dutch infant less than three years to live. As it turns out, she only had seven months.

That’s when her parents and physicians, discouraged by her grim prognosis, joined forces to do something that has become increasingly accepted in the Netherlands: They euthanized her.

“It is in some ways beautiful,” Dutch pediatrician Eduard Verhagen told the London Times, when describing the dying moments of children like Chanou. “But it is also extremely emotional and very difficult.”

Not as difficult as it should be. In the Netherlands, euthanasia of teenagers and adults is legal and baby euthanasia–already practiced among Dutch doctors–will soon be sanctioned by the government. According to the Times, a committee established at the urging of the Dutch Royal Medical Association will begin regulating baby euthanasia in a few weeks. Its standard for deciding who lives and dies will be Verhagen’s own invention, the Groningen Protocol.

The Groningen Protocol is chilling, not only because of its audacity in attempting to judge the worth of human lives but because of its subjectivity in making those judgments. The protocol says that a newborn can be euthanized if his diagnosis and prognosis are “certain,” his suffering is “hopeless and unbearable,” and his quality of life is “very poor,” according to the child’s parents and “at least one independent doctor.”

That standard assumes that physicians are infallible, our current medical knowledge is complete, and human beings are omniscient. How else could one assess with certainty another’s prognosis, experience of suffering, and quality of life? We can know a child suffers; we can know a disease has no known cure. But we cannot pronounce with certainty that another person has no hope or that his suffering has rendered his life worthless. Verhagen himself suggested as much when he told the Times, “No doctor likes to do this. You will always ask yourself, ‘Is there something I have not thought of?’ That is why it needs to be done under a spotlight: you can never, ever be wrong.”

But human beings will be wrong. Discouraged doctors, distraught parents, and distant bureaucrats will make mistakes. And even when their deadly decisions conform perfectly to the protocol, they will commit grave evil by destroying innocent human life in a futile quest to destroy suffering itself.

Americans may be tempted to think that such things could never happen here. But support for infant and child euthanasia has a long history in the United States, stretching from the founding days of the Euthanasia Society of America in 1938 to the recent pronouncements of Peter Singer, a prominent Princeton ethicist who favors a parent’s right to kill disabled newborns.

The threat of euthanasia is already a reality for some American children. Haleigh Poutre, the 12-year-old Massachusetts girl severely beaten by her stepfather last fall, had spent only eight days in the hospital when her state custodians began fighting for the right to remove her ventilator and feeding tube. Doctors had diagnosed her condition as a persistent vegetative state, but Haleigh recovered before they could euthanize her.

Haleigh’s case reminds us that child euthanasia can happen in any nation that has lost respect for the intrinsic value of life and the inviolable dignity of the person. The chilling reality is that although our depraved indifference to the sanctity of human life may not be as advanced as Holland’s, we are moving in that direction.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, an NRO contributor, is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, and author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy.


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