A proposal to allow premature or sick newborn babies to die even when their life would be deemed worth living by medical staff has been condemned by a leading member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Doctor Carlo Bellieni says the suggestion being made by the Oxford-based physician James Wilkinson is both “flawed” and “an erroneous way of considering life.”
Dr. Wilkinson outlines his controversial argument in the American Journal of Bioethics. “The prevailing official view is that treatment may be withdrawn only if the burdens in an infant’s future life outweigh the benefits. ... I conclude that it is justifiable in some circumstances for parents and doctors to decide to allow an infant to die even though the infant’s life would be worth living,” Dr. Wilkinson wrote.
But as Dr. Bellieni explained to CNA, such a suggestion makes for bad ethics and poor patient care. “Firstly, babies are not the property of their parents. Secondly, at birth parents are often stressed and full of pain and suffering. The mother has the pain of childbirth. The father has the shock and stress of being faced with a very premature baby. When you’re in such pain and stress, you’re not really free to make clear-minded decisions that are so important for your offspring.”
Most importantly, Dr. Bellieni said, “the decision about life should only be taken on an objective basis and in the interest of the patient, not in the interests of a third party.”
Dr. Bellieni, who is a Director of the Neonatal Intensive Therapy Unit at Siena University Hospital, is internationally recognized as an expert in the field of neonatal care. In addition to being a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, he is also the Secretary of the Bioethics Committee of the Italian Pediatrics Society.
Although the Italian neonatalogist said he doesn’t know whether hospitals in the Western world are actually practicing Dr. Wilkinson’s radical approach, he pointed towards recent research in Canada suggesting that newborn babies are now receiving less guarantees of treatment than adults. “It’s a very sad scenario. I believe that babies should receive more care than other patients but many philosophers now believe that newborns are not persons and so they actually are receiving fewer guarantees than older people.”
“Even when burdens do seem to be high, for example in the case of severe disability, this is not a sufficient reason to withhold life-saving treatments. After all, a disabled baby has a full right to life too,” Dr. Bellieni stressed.
“Dr. Wilkinson claims that the prevailing clinical view is contrary to this. If that is the case then it’s very worrying indeed and we cannot possibly accept such a viewpoint as ethical.”