Melanie Phillips

6 November 2006

The Royal College of Infanticide

Published in: Daily Mail

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The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has said that 'active euthanasia' should be considered to spare parents the emotional and financial burden of bringing up seriously disabled newborn babies.'

Of course, this is not presented as doing harm -- quite the opposite. It is supposed to end suffering and distress. And there is no doubting the intense pain and misery that follows the birth of terribly sick or handicapped babies.

These situations have become increasingly common. Advances in medical science mean that many more such babies who in previous times would soon have died of their ailments -- including those born very prematurely -- can now be kept alive.

Nevertheless, the proposal is a shocking one -- and all the more so since it is being made by doctors. The Royal College seems most concerned not by the suffering of such babies but of their parents. A whole family, it says, can be disabled by such a birth.

Tragically, that is sometimes all too true. But killing individuals in the interests of others breaks one of the most fundamental moral rules of a civilised society.

It opens the way to treating human beings as disposable, according to either the feelings or finances of other people or the current doctrine of choice.

It is one thing not to prolong the life of a baby who is dying, or not to perform invasive procedures on a desperately sick infant whose life will be inescapably short and full of suffering.

The proper ethical course is indeed to allow such babies to pass away in their own time. But it is quite another thing to take actions deliberately intended to end a baby's life.

That is a line which the law does not permit doctors to cross, and rightly so. Concern to alleviate suffering develops very quickly into indefensibly subjective decisions about whether a particular life is worthwhile.

What levels of sickness or disability would these doctors consider justifies the killing of a baby? They don't say, because such a question cannot be answered without exposing the unjustifiable basis for such a terrible act.

Death can never be a therapeutic remedy. Euthanasia turns doctors into executioners and opens up an appalling vista of abuse. Obstetricians bring life into being.

For such doctors to propose turning themselves into death-dealers is revolting. They might as well change their name to the Royal College of Infanticide.

As the neonatologist John Wyatt has protested, once doctors go down the road of intentional killing, the whole practice of medicine changes. It turns into social engineering, with certain lives written off as worthless if they conflict with the interests of others.

In any event, doctors are not soothsayers. Look at the example of the badly-damaged premature baby Charlotte Wyatt. Doctors thought she would not live past infancy and accordingly decided no longer to resuscitate her. Her parents fought an epic and ultimately successful battle against this decision.

Now three years old, Charlotte is well enough to have left hospital (although she is still badly disabled). Sadly, her parents have now separated, and the impact on them of her plight cannot be overestimated.

But would anyone apart from the Royal College say now that Charlotte's life should have been ended for their benefit?

To be sure, the suffering of Charlotte and other disabled infants is deeply distressing. But science advances all the time, and while this brings its own dilemmas it also offers the hope that cures may be found -- or, at least, progress made in providing relief -- for serious ailments which can afflict the newborn.

The experience of the Netherlands, the world-leader in euthanasia, should sound the loudest of warnings to those tempted to go down this alternative route. Originally, the Dutch permitted euthanasia -- or assisted suicide -- only for dying adults whose suffering could not be relieved, and who were competent to give informed consent. Then they extended this to permit euthanasia for sick or disabled newborn babies and children.

Now, Dutch doctors are killing more than 1,000 people each year without their consent. A study published last year revealed that this included a number of Dutch children, and in two cases doctors had administered euthanasia to children without either them or their parents even having requested it.

Far from delivering a merciful release, euthanasia is a brutal policy because it means withdrawing vital protection from individuals who are in most need of it through their extreme helplessness and vulnerability.

Parents of newborns, for example, would be put under pressure to have their babies killed by doctors conscious of the scarcity of resources in the NHS.

And why stop at babies? Killing newborns would prompt an inevitable call to do the same to adults who are old or desperately sick.

Indeed, we are already well down that slippery slope. By allowing doctors to withdraw the feeding and hydration tubes from certain incapable patients, we have permitted intentional killing disguised as 'allowing someone to die'. Case by case, decisions are taken which, at the time, may appear to be caring and compassionate. But then suddenly we realise that, as a result, we have transformed our society into a moral wasteland.

The same thing happened with legalised abortion and embryo research -- introduced to relieve suffering, but responsible in large measure for the steady brutalisation of our attitude to human life.

Of course, individual tragedies sometimes drive people to desperate acts of 'mercy killing'. But there is all the difference in the world between responding compassionately on such occasions and giving such transgressions the force of law; between individuals acting out of love, and an impersonal, bureaucratised state killing machine.

Only last week, 80-year-old Frank Peters was given a nine-month suspended sentence for killing his 72-year-old wife who suffered from arthritis.

And last month, David March was given a nine-month suspended sentence for helping his wife Gillian, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, to commit suicide. It was surely right that these men were tried, and right that they were dealt with leniently. As the judge in the March case said, society may understand such actions but it cannot condone them.

Yet the Royal College is now saying society should indeed condone intentional killing. So how can doctors, of all people, have so badly lost the ethical plot?

For some years now, the medical establishment has fallen under the spell of academic ethicists and philosophers who, in accordance with fashionable dogma, have no respect whatever for the intrinsic value of human life -- or indeed any absolute values.

In particular, they make no moral distinction between killing someone and allowing them to die. This may be a grey area in practice, but in morality it is crucial. It means the difference between a compassionate therapeutic approach and murder.

Life should be respected in itself. That is our most basic protection against the kind of inhumanity that lay behind the eugenics movement and the ideology of the Nazis. Doctors should be in the first line of defence against such barbarism. The fact that they have blundered onto the wrong side shows how badly this society has lost its way.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
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