Wednesday, December 1, 2004

The Continuing Assault on Life

Hugh Hewitt tips us to the ongoing erosion of the right to life. The Netherlands is currently debating whether it should soon be permissible for doctors to arrogate to themselves the legal right to kill children up to the age of twelve if they deem them to be in terrible pain and terminally ill. Parents' wishes will, of course, be considered, but the ultimate decision rests with doctors. Previously, Dutch law only allowed for euthanasia of patients older than twelve.

The following is the first part of an article describing the Groningen Protocol, a set of guidelines for an experimental policy allowing child euthanasia.

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - Four times in recent months, Dutch doctors have pumped lethal doses of drugs into newborns they believe are terminally ill, setting off a new phase in a growing European debate over when, if ever, it's acceptable to hasten death for the critically ill. Few details of the four newborns' deaths have been made public. Official investigations have found that the doctors made appropriate and professional decisions under an experimental policy allowing child euthanasia that's known as the Groningen University Hospital protocol.

But the children's deaths, and the possibility that the protocol will become standard practice throughout the Netherlands, have sparked heated discussion about whether the idea of assisting adults who seek to die should ever be applied to children and others who are incapable of making, or understanding, such a request.

"Applying euthanasia to children is another step down the slope in this debate," said Henk Jochemsen, the director of Holland's Lindeboom Institute, which studies medical ethics. "Not everybody agrees, obviously, but when we broaden the application from those who actively and repeatedly seek to end their lives to those for whom someone else determines death is a better option, we are treading in dangerous territory."

The Dutch debate is being closely watched throughout the continent. Belgium has laws similar to those in the Netherlands, and a bill permitting child euthanasia is before its Parliament. No date has been set for debate.

Great Britain is considering legalizing assisted suicide for the terminally ill, amid reports that doctors already may be helping thousands of patients to die each year.

"Assisted dying is a fact," said Hazel Biggs, the director of medical law at the University of Kent, who's about to publish a report estimating the number of assisted deaths in Britain at 18,000 annually. "We have to regulate it, to ensure that vulnerable people are being protected."

Under the Groningen protocol, if doctors at the hospital think a child is suffering unbearably from a terminal condition, they have the authority to end the child's life. The protocol is likely to be used primarily for newborns, but it covers any child up to age 12.

Hewitt asserts that, "There are three kinds of people in the world: Those who will react with horror and alarm to this story; those who will applaud it; and those who will shrug it off as of no interest to them. I am uncertain which of the latter two groups is in worse moral condition."

The crucial question here is what safeguards are in place to insure that the policy won't gradually evolve to eventually permit euthanasia of children born to poor families or emotionally distraught mothers or children whose prospects are otherwise bleak? How will doctors be prevented from killing children whose lives they simply deem to be insufficiently pleasant?

The trend here is very disturbing, not less so because the motives for legalizing child euthanasia seem so compassionate.