It seems that negative attitudes toward people with disabilities have recently grown from the theoretical ideas of Peter Singer of Princeton University, who believes that it is acceptable to kill disabled infants, into the actual practice of allowing infants with disabilities to be euthanized. In any other time in history, this was known as the crime of infanticide. It is now becoming viewed as “dying with dignity.”
Last year, the Netherlands, which has allowed euthanasia and assisted suicide for many years, approved the Groningen Protocol. This is a criteria Dutch physicians follow to allow them to euthanize infants with disabilities and not be prosecuted. Many people were shocked that the Netherlands had not only accepted euthanasia for competent adults, but also for infants with disabilities, who could not ask to be killed.
The judgement call on whether a child should live or die is based solely on the attitudes of the physician or parents about the possible quality of life of the individual. These acts of infanticide have been justified by people who believe it is acceptable to kill infants born with significant disabilities, because their lives will either be filled with constant suffering or without human meaning.
The fact is that most of the infants euthanized under the Groningen Protocol are children born with spina bifida, a condition that can be successfully treated, often resulting in a “normal” life for the person. Just ask Darrell Thomas in London, Ont., who was born 50 years ago in Winnipeg with spina bifida. His mother was told he would be severely disabled and yet, Darrell has lived an active, normal life. Darrell recently said to me: “Thank God I was born in Canada 50 years ago and not the Netherlands today.”
Not all children will live as active a life as Darrell, but who are we to judge who should live and who should die? In November, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in Britain requested that its members not only be permitted to allow natural death to occur by not providing life-sustaining medical treatment, but also be allowed to euthanasize infants born with disabilities. There is a huge ethical difference between allowing natural death to occur by not providing extraordinary medical treatment and intentionally causing the death of an infant with disabilities.
To withdraw or withhold medical treatment that may or may not provide benefit for a person is not euthanasia, but rather, accepting the limits of life.
We must reject the slide into the quality-of-life ethic promoted by the likes of Peter Singer, because this ethic dehumanizes people and grants them the status of personhood only when they have a certain level of utility or cognition. This philosophy represents the worst form of eugenics, an ethic that says we should eliminate the weak and vulnerable for the sake of the “happiness” of society as a whole.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists needs to return to an ethic of caring for the most vulnerable. It must commit to not only protecting the lives of children with disabilities, but also to providing basic medical care to all of its patients.
Once we determine who should live and who should die, the only question remaining is who should live.
Alex Schadenberg is the executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.