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Infant Euthanasia

Niki Shisler writes:

You might think that when a Tory councillor (Swindon’s Owen Lister) makes a statement apparently advocating the guillotine for some newborn babies, there would be a massive public outcry. It seems though, that when those babies have been born with profound disabilities the censure is rather more muted. In the end Lister resigned offering an apology, not for his belief that some children should be killed, just for the word “guillotine” which, he insists, was taken “out of context”. The press coverage was disapproving but still fairly low-key; few columnists rushed to respond and, in the end, the story melted away like a bad smell. Why the reticence? Where was the screeching tabloid campaign to ‘protect these kiddies’? Is this subject so uncomfortable that journalists cannot even bring themselves to examine it, afraid of the issues it must raise and the personal prejudices they may have to confront?

The fact is that, on both the left and the right, people don’t really know what to think. Most people, it seems, are happy to keep the whole subject of disability at arms length; they don’t engage with it, don’t particularly want to understand it and, on seeing the vast can of worms labelled “infant euthanasia”, their first instinct is to simply avoid. The lack of public debate on this hugely important and emotive subject is almost as telling as Cllr Lister’s original words.

Owen Lister is, unfortunately, far from alone in his view. He argues that severely disabled children are a massive drain on resources; that they soak up money that would be better used for “reducing NHS waiting lists” rather than on those who are labelled “unproductive”. One of the chief proponents of this view is Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University and the author of Practical Ethics. Closer to home, the Dutch have also been looking into infant euthanasia, but don’t think for a moment that it doesn’t happen here. Just ask the parents of Charlotte Wyatt, who have been to court unsuccessfully three times to try to have their daughter’s DNR (do not resuscitate) order lifted. All around the UK, in neonatal intensive care units everywhere, parents make the heartbreaking decision to discontinue treatment to babies with little chance of “meaningful recovery”. No-one should ever be condemned for making such a choice but, similarly, no-one should have it forced upon them.

You don’t have to be a pro-lifer or a Christian fundamentalist to find the idea of killing disabled babies deeply worrying, and yet it is astonishing how many on the left consider the argument to have some validity. No matter how much compassion you dress it up in though, the fact remains that this is eugenics. We are not just talking about passive killing through the withholding of medicine or food; bio-ethicists such as Singer advocate active murder for the ‘hopeless cases’. Practical Ethics states that “killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all” but, of course, definitions of ‘defective’ are likely to vary who will decide which lives are worth saving and which children will die, how will they choose? The bar must be set somewhere and, when you’re working with such subjective issues as ‘quality of life’, you move rapidly into dangerous territory.

If the justification for the killing of (or, at least, not allocating resources for) disabled children is in part that they are “unproductive” it is worth examining the truth of that statement. Whilst some of the most severely disabled individuals may not be productive in the usual sense of the word (i.e. they do not make goods or create wealth) it is simply untrue to say that they do not have a hugely important contribution to make. Part of what defines a community is how it cares for its most vulnerable members. A healthy society is one that is fully rounded, filled with people of all abilities from the multi-skilled to the profoundly limited. We learn to be compassionate and to consider those whose needs are very different to our own. Most importantly, we learn perspective. When we look at the lives of people with disabilities we are, in many cases, looking into our own futures. Some in the disabled community refer to the non-disabled as “tabs” – temporarily able-bodied – in recognition of the fact that either accident or age will rob many of us of our physical or mental strength eventually.

Owen Lister, like many people, takes the line that when resources are limited it makes no sense to support people who are unlikely to ever achieve anything. Of course there are areas, sport for example, where we do exactly that. Sport enjoys vast public and private investment and yet, actually, benefits relatively few. We don’t expect a direct, personal return on our investment though; we see the wider benefits to our society and it is enough. We all share the glory and the joy of an Olympic medal, a world cup or even a tiny urn. We understand that, while the vast majority of grass-roots sporting investment will never shower us in glory, every once in a while we will produce the next Kelly Holmes. It is perhaps worth remembering that we should also be investing in the next Stephen Hawking.

Niki Shisler’s book, Fragile, is published in April.