The United States is a bit odd — on the one hand we have some of the least restrictive abortions laws in the world, while simultaneously also generally going far beyond what hospitals in other countries will attempt to save very premature births (which is one of the major reasons the U.S. infant mortality rate appears so much higher than comparable countries).
In Europe, however, it’s become fashionable for the intellectual elite to ponder whether or not it might be better to actively euthanize such infants who may have a “poor quality of life”.
An unsigned article/editorial published in the November 9, 2006 edition of The Economist does an excellent job of showing the dangers of going down that route.
Responding to a Nuffield Council on Bioethics report that recommending broader public debate about active euthanasia of infants, The Economist wrote,
There is another reason, too, why baby euthanasia needs discussing, but talking about it is virtually taboo. Families who bring up massively handicapped children often find the stress too much for them.
Take the case of Charlotte Wyatt, born at 26 weeks in 2003 with severe disabilities. Her doctors wanted to withhold treatment but her parents argued successfully that she should be kept alive. Now the parents have separated and Charlotte is up for adoption. Disabled children are nine times more likely than others to end up in the care of the state.
Tiny babies do tug at the heartstrings but raising a severely impaired child is heartbreakingly hard. It is brave of doctors to question whether they should save the life of each and every one.
The Charlotte Wyatt case does raise a number of questions about the sort of care offered to premature infants. Only weighing 1 pound at birth, Wyatt suffers from brain damage and lung problems. Three years after her birth, she has to be constantly hooked up to oxygen and fed through a nose tube.
Total costs of keeping her alive so far have topped 1.1 million pounds. No one would (or should) object if her parents were footing that bill, but under Great Britain’s socialized health care system the 1.1 million pounds spent taking care of Charlotte Wyatt is 1.1 million pounds that can’t be spent addressing other health care concerns.
There will always be questions in cases like Charlotte’s over just how much extraordinary (and incredibly expensive) medical intervention should be undertaken.
But it is a huge jump from that cost-benefit driven issue to whether or not Charlotte should have been euthanized because she would stress her parents out.
It is true, as The Economist writes, that “now the parents have separated and Charlotte is up for adoption,” but this is a bit of a lie through omission. Yes, her parents have separated, but both Debbie and Darren Wyatt have also cited the legal battle they had to fight to obtain life saving support for their daughter as a major strain on their marriage. One could just as easily deduce from the episode that the state and hospitals should immediately give in to such requests, because doing otherwise could dissolve the marital bonds of the two people most able to care for the child in question.
Second, The Economist gives the impression that Charlotte’s health problems are so severe that her parents no longer want to care for her. In fact, her father has applied to the court overseeing the case to have Charlotte come home to live with him, but that court has ruled that a single parent is incapable of meeting all of Charlotte’s medical needs. Instead, she is expected to be released to foster care once she is well enough (and presumably if her parents reconcile or remarry, they might regain custody of Charlotte provided they can demonstrate they can adequately care for Charlotte).
The Economist’s view that it is “brave” to consider actively terminating a child’s life to avoid undue stress on the parents is very close to Peter Singer’s formulation that we should not consider infants as “persons” until they reach their 31st day of life. After all why stop at stress caused by severe disabilities? Taking care of an healthy child can be extremely stressful, especially for women predisposed to having post-partum depression. If the amount of stress an infant will impose upon its parents is a valid consideration in deciding whether or not to kill a baby, then why not for other cases where even infants with mild disabilities (or, in the extreme, even perfectly health infants) may impose great stress on their parents?
Which is exactly why active euthanasia should be completely off the table when it comes to medical interventions with infants.
Suffer the little children. The Economist, November 9, 2006.
Baby Charlotte faces foster care as parents can’t cope. Neil Sears & Dan Newling, The Daily Mail, October 16, 2006.
Charlotte Wyatt set to be fostered. Portsmouth.Co.Uk, December 20, 2006.