.- A group of undergraduate students at Princeton University wrestled first-hand with the ethical question of whether the life of a premature baby should be ended if medical data predict a low chance of survival.
Bioethics professor Peter Singer took 13 students from his Ethical Choices seminar to visit the neonatal intensive care unit at Saint Peters University Hospital in Metuchen last week, reported the Princetonian.
At the hospital, 13 students saw premature babies, surrounded by life support machines and attached to a number of tubes. They came upon a 2-hour-old baby, who was born 14 weeks premature, weighed 365 grams and measured nine inches.
Because of the possibility of mental and physical defects, Singer argues the infant's parents should be able to decide whether to shut off her life-support machines and end her life.
Singer has stirred controversy with these views, with some groups labeling him a "baby-killer.” He says societies throughout history have used selective infanticide for the greater good. Singer also refuses to equate killing newborns with killing adults, saying newborns are not self-aware and therefore different from adult humans and animals worthy of protection.
However, Neonatal Medicine Director Dr. Mark Hiatt maintained that the nine-inch baby was fully human and rejected Singer's view. "This is a child, somebody's daughter," Hiatt said. "Hopefully she'll be with us for many weeks and eventually go home with her mother and father."
Hiatt told the class that a family asked him to withhold care for their premature baby because of financial reasons. The father was in graduate school and had a young family already. Hiatt asked them to seek another hospital.
"We [at St. Peter's] don't want to do all this aggressive, heroic intervention unless there's a good possibility that this will be an intact, healthy child," he told the students. "I could never do anything to terminate a life. I became a doctor for the opposite reason."
Hiatt said he would only allow a baby to die by withdrawing care – called passive euthanasia – and letting nature runs its course. "As a society, I don't think we want our doctors to [perform active euthanasia, where the doctor directly ends someone's life]," he added. "I wouldn't do it. I couldn't do it. I'm not an executioner."
Not all students, however, accepted Hiatt's reasoning. Student Nic Poulos called the doctor’s distinction between active and passive euthanasia "semantics."
"He's enabling the child's death, period," Poulos said. Singer said he doesn’t see a distinction either and says that in the case of the graduate student, he would have agreed with the parents.