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Infant euthanasia creeps into acceptability

Kathryn Jean Lopez | April 2 2005

Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all."

Peter Singer, a bioethics professor at Princeton University, penned this chillingly cold line in his book Practical Ethics.

In case you're not freezing yet: Singer explains that, "Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time." Hence, they're disposable.

Infant euthanasia (Have you ever imagined seeing those two words together?) is the practice Singer is discussing. And don't confuse it with abortion. We're talking out-of-the-womb, mom-has-delivered, right-here-with-you-and-me babies. Where's it happening? In Europe and the Netherlands, specifically — although word of it is slowly spreading. In Holland, the Associated Press reports that "at least five newborn mercy killings occur for every one reported."

"Mercy" is the keyword. Learning that your newborn has a fatal or potentially fatal illness must be an indescribably painful experience for a parent. But consider the added anguish of a doctor talking you into being "merciful" by ending your child's life.
And what determines merciful, anyway? That term is a bit vague in this context, as is most of the language advocating infant euthanasia.

Writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, two doctors from the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands confessed that "it is difficult to define" who, among infants, can or should be eliminated. Babies, obviously, can't tell you their pain is unbearable, so it becomes incumbent on "parents and medical experts" to determine what "hopeless" means.

"Hopeless" is another term for the infant-euthanasia glossary.

At the moment, the "mercy killing" of infants isn't officially legal — even in the Netherlands. It's just happening. But the Groningen doctors seem to believe that if they can present guidelines by which doctors can break the law uniformly — the presumption being that they be professional about their killing — that a law allowing such killing will follow.

The larger framework is already there in Holland: "Adult" euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, including for some teenagers without parental consent. Voluntary euthanasia there is not restricted to the terminally ill; if your desire to die is "rational," you've got a green light. (It's not an attitude confined to the Dutch: In a 2001 interview, right-to-die activist Philip Nitschke told me that suicide facilitation should be available "to anyone who wants it, including the depressed, the elderly bereaved, [and] the troubled teen.")

Just think about that. Life can seem pretty hopeless in high school pretty darn often when you're struggling in French and the captain of the football team doesn't know you exist. If the United States had a law like the one in the Netherlands, lines of the pimple-faced dejected would wrap around the killing clinics.

The Dutch way is a clear example of a slippery slope at work. First "adult" euthanasia is embraced (which was decriminalized in a pattern clearly familiar to the Groningen doctors are outlining), then infant euthanasia.

Christine Rosen, the author of Preaching Eugenics, a book on America's experience with euthanasia, says that, "The Netherlands' embrace of euthanasia has been a gradual process aided by the growing acceptance (in a much more secular Europe) that some life is 'unworthy of life.'" Indeed, Europe is doing just that. According to the Associated Press, 73 percent of French doctors have admitted to using drugs to end an infant's life, with between 2 and 4 percent of doctors in the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Germany and Sweden confessing the same.

Here in the United States, infant euthanasia remains under the radar. But it's no new thing. There was the case of the Bollinger Baby in 1915, when a Chicago doctor permitted an infant, who could have lived with surgery, to die. According to Rosen, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden "later admitted that he had allowed the death of many other 'defective' babies." He even made a propaganda film, The Black Stork, to promote euthanasia and infant euthanasia.

Could Peter Singer be, or be grooming, the next Harry Haiselden? Wesley Smith, author of A Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World, points out that Singer is a tenured professor at one of our most prestigious universities "because of his advocacy" — school administrators knew exactly who they were hiring at the time. And there he is, "preparing the intellectual ground" for infant euthanasia right in New Jersey. Smith warns, "If we invite the vampire of euthanasia into our midst, we will fall off of the same vertical cliff as has Holland."

Mercifully, we're still a good way from vampires and cliffs on the issue of infant euthanasia. But a few more winks and nods at the "mercy killing" of newborns and it will be time to watch our necks and look out below.