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On Advocating Infant Euthanasia

by Barbara Smoker

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 1.

Most secular humanists advocate the legalization of voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide for those with incurable medical conditions that are, to themselves, intolerable.

More contentious is euthanasia for seriously defective newborn babies—because it cannot, of course, be voluntary. However, though a baby naturally arouses warm, protective feelings in us, I feel strongly that it is cruel, and therefore immoral, to preserve a baby's life when there are such severe handicaps that chances of happiness are manifestly low. For life can, of course, be far worse than death.

In a sense, the euthanasia of a newborn baby is a very late abortion—and, when severe defects have unfortunately not been diagnosed until the baby is actually born, why should the child be forced to endure an intolerable life until he or she is old enough to choose suicide or until natural death finally brings relief?

The situation immediately after birth is not the same as that of an older child becoming severely disabled, perhaps through illness or accident: whereas a newborn baby has very limited awareness, no idea of any future, and no real stake in life, an older child has become a real little person, with personal relationships, a sense of his or her own identity, and an idea of purpose—the very things that give human beings human rights and status.

Parents or doctors, or other responsible people, naturally have to make every decision on behalf of a newborn baby; but it is often said that a decision for something as crucial as euthanasia should be postponed until the child is old enough to decide for himself or herself. I disagree: the decision to postpone euthanasia is itself a crucial decision on behalf of the child. In fact, it is a decision to condemn him or her to, say, eighteen years of extreme suffering.

In practice, it is usual in Britain (and probably in the United States and other civilized countries) for doctors to instruct nurses to starve seriously defective neonates to death—giving them only water, not milk. This is certainly better than keeping them alive-but not as merciful as a quick, lethal injection, if only the law allowed it. Starvation may take about ten days, and though the babies themselves, being sedated, are unlikely to suffer much, their parents and nurses certainly do.

And what of the duty to society? In most cases the parents of a neonate who dies could produce a perfectly healthy baby in a year's time, and, since we now have a social duty to limit our families, it is only sensible to limit them to those with a reasonable prospect of a normal human life.

I am no stranger to obloquy for my campaigns on various social issues over the years, but it has been my advocacy of the legalization of infant euthanasia, both in print and on television, that has attracted the fiercest and most sustained hatred. Not least from schoolchildren: when a debating book, Whose Side Are You On?, was compiled for use in British schools, with signed articles on opposing sides of each controversial issue, I was the only writer the compiler could find who was willing to contribute an article advocating infant euthanasia.

Many medical practitioners are in agreement with me, of course, on this issue but they shy away from saying so in public, especially to a young audience. Understandably so, as their professional reputations could hardly survive the description "baby-killer" or "child-murderer" often leveled at me—whereas I have little to lose, so long as the hate attacks remain verbal.

Barbara Smoker is a former president of Britain's National Secular Society. She is spearheading a campaign to have nonreligious speakers appear on the BBC's "Thought for the Day" segment of the morning news.

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This page was last updated 02/13/2004

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