British gynaecologists back euthanasia

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I always find myself surprised when I agree with anything Melanie Phillips says, but when she’s not talking about global warming (or the lack thereof) or anything to do with Islam, Israel, or the so-called “War on Terror” and its offshoots, which is nowadays what she’s best known for, I often do. In this case, it’s the declaration of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in favour of the “active euthanasia” of severely disabled babies. In the Netherlands, infant euthanasia is allowed “for a range of incurable conditions, including severe spina bifida and the painful skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa”.

(Is this only the second country where the national Obs & Gynae institution has developed a tendency to defend the indefensible? In France we recently read that their O&G college demanded that Muslims in France accept that “public hospitals are part of a secular state, in which patients must accept being examined by a doctor of the opposite sex” according to the Daily Telegraph, as if a woman should really need a religious reason to insist that a woman do intimate examinations if one is available.)

Quite apart from the usual objections that it violates the principle that human life is sacred and that taking life, other than in self-defence or for other good reasons, is wrong, and that a right to die could become a “duty to die”, with the terminally ill feeling under pressure to choose euthanasia in order to spare their loved ones the distress of seeing them suffer or expense of caring for them and to free up that bed they’re occupying for someone who can benefit from it, this rearing of the ugly head of euthanasia inspires two fresh objections.

First, as Melanie Phillips pointed out, the “Royal College seems most concerned not by the suffering of such babies but of their parents”, and this stance was buttressed in the Sunday Times by the story of Edna Kennedy, the mother of Jonny Kennedy who suffered from the aforementioned EB:

JONNY KENNEDY lived and died in agony. From the moment he was born until his premature death at the age of 36 he was covered with blisters and sores, the result of a rare genetic skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa (EB). The mildest touch caused his skin to bleed and sheer off. When he died of skin cancer on September 26, 2003, his mother Edna, who lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, admitted that her primary reaction to his death was relief, not grief.

Obviously, I do not know anything about Jonny Kennedy that his mother doesn’t, or indeed anything other than what I saw in a TV documentary on him a few years ago (it was called The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off - he was 36, for heaven’s sake!). However, from that documentary it did not appear that he allowed his life to be dominated by the pain he was in, as severe as that was. But clearly he had enough reason not to kill himself when he was 18, or indeed at any time in the rest of his life. Did he want to die? While he himself said he favoured termination of a pregancy where the baby had his condition, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer he “felt anger and frustration” and had to be prescribed Prozac.

There is a second concern, however, which is that conditions some of us might think we would rather die than have them often do not have this effect on everyone, or on sufferers. For example, the thought of going blind horrifies many people, but to me the thought of having a severe spinal injury with all that entails (I don’t just mean not being able to walk) has that effect and blindness does not, to anything like the same extent. People have, on more than one occasion, instructed doctors to withdraw their feeding and ventilation after becoming tetraplegic. While blindness does not (yet) make a baby a candidate for euthanasia, spina bifida does in the Netherlands and abortions for such reasons as having a cleft palate and other abnormalities do happen in this country. In living memory, children with various deformities and abnormalities were placed in institutions; some of the victims of the thalidomide affair recall being in an institution where they were addressed by numbers, not their names.

Is such a person’s life worth living? Perhaps you might ask them, something you cannot do when the person is a baby and has never known anything else. Whatever discomforts someone suffers, it is still possible for them to live happy and fulfilling lives if they are given the chance. Given the advance of medicine, more and more of these conditions can be cured or ameliorated, and if such is not the case when a child is born, it may become so during their lifetime. Even if not, it is for nobody to decide that someone else’s life is or is not worth living; it is a recipe for people to make such decisions for reasons unconnected to the patient’s welfare, such as what burden they might be on society or their family. Civilisation largely won the long battle against eugenics, in which “experts”, and legislators under their influence, decreed that certain people were to be prevented from marrying or having children on such grounds; this “son of eugenics” has the same potential for evil, and demands murder, not merely unjust sterilisations and impediments to marriages. It must be defeated as well.

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