Page 4, 9th February 1979

9th February 1979
Page 4
Page 4, 9th February 1979 — Puzzling comment on baby euthanasia

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Locations: London, Leeds


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Puzzling comment on baby euthanasia

It was _good to see you so concerned over the baby sedated and starved to death that you gave it front-page covereage (January 19).

I found the editorial comment a little puzzling. I would not have thought the issue was such a new one. When I was nursing 40 years ago, I remember a similar thing happened.

The night staff, on the instruction (unofficial) of the staff nurse, stopped feeding a baby that was abnormal by all appearances and not thriving. The day staff continued to feed and care for it.

It is true that sedation was not given in this case. So the baby died not ofbut of its abnormalities.

The statement "it is a question of giving life" surprised me. What, I wondered, did you mean by that? Even modern medicines do not give life — only God does. They may help to sustain and strengthen life. There is a great difference between not using extraordinary methods to sustain life, and not giving ordinary care and attention — feeds, nursing care, pain relieving drugs etc.

It is not a case into which people are rushing in with cries of euthanasia for a baby who died of natural causes, but of a baby who was sedated (for no medical reason apparently) and so did not cry for feeds. The fact that the baby was dehydrated is sufficient evidence that she was starved to death — it seems deliberately.

We may feel every sympathy with the parents and doctor. It doesn't alter the fact that what was done was (misguidedly) wrong. There is enough muddled thinking on this subject already. We do look to our Catholic Press to make things clearer.

(Mn) Daphne McCanna Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire.

Your leader ofJanuary 18, concerning the Thames Television spina bifida baby, was doubtless wellmeant. However, it failed to understand the crux of the issue.

No human being can survive without, first, access to oxygen, food and warmth and secondly, freedom from lethal poisons or trauma. M, st

human beings can and do survive without drugs, surgical intervention or artificial ventilation (the "life ,support machines", beloved by the media).

Therefore, a person is "allowed to die", if he is given the basic, naturally-occurring necessities of life but not provided with the above artificial aids. However, he is killed if he is suffocated, starved or frozen, or is subjected to sufficient physical or chemical assault.

Spina bifida babies are selected for surgery on grounds which include the severity of their condition. However, the severly afflicted ones, who do not undergo oepration, do not all "conveniently" die, nor did they in the days before modern medicine. Such babies face difficult lives in view of their great disabilities.

Most people would accept the withholding of antibiotics during in fection in these children (as in the terminally ill) as "allowing them to die".

However, heavily sedating these babies, so that they do not demand food and are not fed, is to deprive them of a basic prerequisite for survival and therefore is not short of murder.

(Dr) A. F. Travers Leeds I have no first-hand knowledge of the spina bifida case as featured on Thames TV, but from the various items in the Catholic Herald it seems. to me that there is much jumping to conclusions.

One should not assume that this broadcast was deliberate propaganda (Mrs Scarisbrick, as reported on January 19). It is possible that the intention was to promote public discussion of this very vital issue, a point which it seems Dr Garrow (News Analysis 26 January) made Ethical considerations, likewise medical ones, are seldom simple questions of black or white.

The Editor is correct — this is a new issue, one of many that are exercising the minds of thinking people. To talk about "traps" and "confidence tricks" engineered by the abortion-euthanasia lobby (Dr Margaret White, February 2) is begging the question.

That these people may (quite

legitimately) use this similar and simil cases to promote their various interests has no bearing on the facts in question. Facts are to be judged only on their merits, according to what one believes to be right, not on some hypothetical use to which they may subsequently be put.

It is highly unlikely that a TV interview would provide full knowledge and proper understanding of the facts. In such circumstances doctors are under stress, speak carefully and are reluctant to go into details. It is all too easy for the uninformed listener to draw the wrong conclusions: it is inexcusable for anyone to jump the gun with preconceived ones. Robin and Wanda Haig state (January 26): "According to Dr Garrow, (the baby) died from deliberate dehydration and starvation" (italics mine). In their context I suppose this to be meant in the sense of premeditated murder.

The Catholic Herald reports (January 19) that Dr Garrow described two alternative procedures, one of which would inevitably result in the child dying sooner (without pain) rather than later (with in the meantime, incalculable pain and distress). In News Analysis the Herald says he stated that he had allowed the baby to die, which does not demand (but might possibly permit) the interpretation of premeditated murder.

Any doctor pressed to state the cause of death would give it substantially as it would appear on the death certificate — the immediate (primary) cause. That does not imply the cause was deliberately engineered to secure death, even were death the inevitable consequence of whatever treatment had to be administered.

The complex and painful therapies discontinued, the baby was sedated, presumably to prevent constant pain from an inflated bladder. If Dr White will excuse me — I thought it was common knowledge among those concerned that babies should never be given .analgesic drugs.

Also, regarding natural feeding, I suppose it highly unlikely that a baby with an exposed Spinal cord should be subjected to the inexpert handling inevitat e if she were put to the

breast. In any case a baby in pain will not suckle.

The duty of a Christian is to be ever vigilant in the cause of Jesus Christ, which demands that he/she be well-informed on all relevant facts and opinions before passing judgment. The Catholic Herald is in this instance an excellent example. Clare Hourilutne Roscombe, Bournemouth, Dorset.

John Carey's News Analysis on euthanasia (January 26) includes some questionable points and excludes some relevant ones. He says that the hospices "have clearly demonstrated that pain can almost always be brought completely under control". This admits that pain cannot always be controlled, and omits other forms of intolerable discomfort and distress in incurable illness.

He says that "the vast majority of doctors" and "the medical profession" in general would oppose the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia. Opinion surveys of doctors in 1964 and 1965 showed that nearly half had been asked for euthanasia by incurable patients and that more than a third would give it if it were legal.

He doesn't mention that opinion surveys of the general public in 1976 and 1978 showed that more than two-thirds favour the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia and that nearly two-thirds favour the legalisation of assisted suicide.

He doesn't mention that in a pluralist society it is surely wrong for the criminal law to intervene between an incurable patient who asks for release and sympathetic doctor who gives it, when neither of them has any objections to the procedure and when the great majority of the population supports their choice.

Supporters of the campaign for legalisation argue not that patients should be given euthanasia against their will or that doctors should give euthanasia against their conscience, but that a patient's will and a doctor's conscience are their own business, whichever way they may go.

Nicolas Walter News Editor, Rationalist Press Association. London, NI.

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