News Articles

LIFE DIGEST: British council rejects
‘active euthanasia’ for newborns

WASHINGTON (BP)–A British bioethics council rejected a suggestion for “active euthanasia” of severely disabled infants but recommended babies born before 22 weeks into pregnancy not be treated.

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics issued its report Nov. 15 after a request by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists produced worldwide anticipation. The ob-gyn group urged the Nuffield council “to think more radically about non-resuscitation, withdrawal of treatment decisions, the best-interests test and active euthanasia.” As a result, the bioethics council agreed to include euthanasia of “extremely premature and seriously ill babies” in its consultation.

The Nuffield council rejected “active euthanasia,” saying it “concluded the active ending of life of newborn babies should not be allowed, no matter how serious their condition. The professional obligation of doctors is to preserve life where they can. If doctors were to be permitted actively to end the lives of seriously ill newborn babies, there is a risk that the relationship between parents and doctors would be negatively affected.”

The council, however, established week-by-week recommendations for care of early born babies:

— Babies born before 22 weeks should not receive “intensive care.”

— Children born between 22 and 23 weeks, who leave the hospital alive only 1 percent of the time, should not normally receive such care “unless parents request it after a thorough discussion of the risks and if the doctors agree.”

— Parents, after a complete discussion with health providers, should make the final decision on “intensive care” for babies born between 23 and 24 weeks.

— Babies born between 24 and 25 weeks normally should receive such care “unless the parents and the doctors agree that there is no hope of survival or if the level of suffering outweighs the baby’s interest in continuing to live.”

— After 25 weeks, babies should normally receive “[i]ntensive care.”

“Natural instincts are to try to save all babies, even if the baby’s chances of survival are low,” said Margaret Brazier, chair of the committee that drafted the guidelines for the council. “However, we don’t think it is always right to put a baby through the stress and pain of invasive treatment if the baby is unlikely to get any better and death is inevitable.”

Wesley Smith, a lawyer and pro-life specialist in biomedical issues, said the “very good news is that [the Nuffield council] rejected infanticide out of hand.”

Of the week-by-week guidelines, Smith wrote on the weblog at bioethics.com that he is “not comfortable with such guidelines in that each patient should be evaluated and treated as an individual, not as part of a group. Of course, knowing the odds of survival at any given stage would be part of that agonizing decision making process. I also worry that futile care theory could seep into this process and that infants would be denied treatment because they would be disabled.

“Still, it could have been worse,” Smith noted.

STEM CELL FIRST –- Scientists have made another advance in non-embryonic stem cell research, growing human heart valves from amniotic fluid, which surrounds babies in the womb.

A Swiss team reported Nov. 17 on the experiment, which indicated people may in the future be able to have their own heart valves grown as replacement parts in a laboratory even before they are born, the Associated Press reported. If so, such valves may be more effective and long-lasting than artificial or cadaver versions, according to AP.

The work also would be done without destroying embryos, which is required in embryonic stem cell research.

“This is an ethical advantage,” said Simon Hoerstrup, research team leader from the University of Zurich, according to AP. “This may open a whole new therapy concept to the treatment of congenital heart defects.”

PRO-LIFE WIN IN COURT –- A federal appeals court has granted a victory to medical professionals and institutions that refuse to provide or refer for abortions.

The District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Nov. 14 an attempt by the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association to invalidate the Weldon amendment. The measure, first approved in late 2004, bars the federal government, as well as state and local governments that receive some federal funds, from discriminating against doctors or other medical professionals who refuse to perform abortions or to refer women to abortion providers. It also protects hospitals and other organizations that maintain a pro-life position.

“Doctors and nurses should not be forced to participate in abortions against their religious beliefs or conscience. Under the banner of ‘choice,’ the [NFPRHA] asserted a supposed right to do this, but the court didn’t buy it,” said Casey Mattox, litigation counsel for the Christian Legal Society, in a written release. “This decision turns back the effort to enshrine abortion as a right above even the First Amendment.”

CLS and Alliance Defense Fund lawyers represented the Christian Medical Association and American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists in the case.

The court ruled the NFPRHA did not have standing, saying the organization had not shown that its members had been injured by the law. Many members of the NFPRHA are family planning organizations that receive federal aid and perform abortions or provide references for them. Six of the association’s board members are representatives of Planned Parenthood, the country’s leading abortion provider.

The Weldon amendment is named after Rep. Dave Weldon, a pro-life Republican and doctor from Florida.

HHS CHOICE DECRIED –- Abortion rights advocates have blasted the Bush administration for selecting the medical director of a pro-life pregnancy services group to oversee a federal family planning program.

The selection of Eric Keroack as deputy assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services elicited immediate and pronounced criticisms. Keroack, an obstetrician-gynecologist, has been medical director for A Woman’s Concern, a pregnancy resources service with six locations in Massachusetts.

A Woman’s Concern promotes sexual abstinence until marriage, discourages abortion and refuses to provide contraceptives. The organization’s website says it “is persuaded that the crass commercialization and distribution of birth control is demeaning to women, degrading of human sexuality and adverse to human health and happiness,” The Washington Post reported.

Keroack will oversee the Title X program, which funds family planning centers. Many Title X recipients are clinics that provide contraceptives and refer for or provide abortions.

“Rather than choosing someone who has a proven track record of support for family planning, this administration has gone out of its way to select a candidate who has made a career out of promoting abstinence-only education and appears to be fundamentally opposed to contraception,” said Marilyn Keefe, interim president of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, in a written statement.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-choice America, said in a written release Keroack’s selection “demonstrates that after losing power in both houses of Congress, President Bush will now exploit the powers of his office to advance his far-right agenda.”

NARAL is one of the country’s leading abortion rights organizations.

Keroack’s appointment does not require Senate approval.