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Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

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Belgian doctors eager for law change to euthanize infants, study claims

Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

Analysis

April 24, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — A majority of Flemish neonatologists working in intensive care units favor active end-of-life decisions for newborns, according to a new study published by “Acta Paediatrica,” a peer-reviewed publication for pediatricians. The study took the form of a survey of doctors and nurses working in all eight neonatal intensive care units in Dutch-speaking Belgium in May 2017.

The survey has received wide publicity in Belgium, with headlines claiming that most doctors and carers are prepared to back infant euthanasia in hard cases where newborns are experiencing intense pain, and their parents themselves are demanding that they be “freed from their suffering.”

The Nieuwsblad is one of the main newspapers pushing this new demand for an extension of the existing euthanasia law in Belgium. It says, “[S]ix out of 10 Flemish neonatologists are working to obtain a law that will allow actively to end the life of newborns in case of unbearable suffering. At present, they can still be persecuted for infanticide for such an act, leading to a culture of fear among doctors and useless agonies for parents.”

The lengthy article does not give the correct picture of the survey by Laure Dombrecht, Luc Deliens, and others. The survey was in fact handed out only to neonatologists and neonatal nurses working with babies needing intensive life-sustaining treatment after birth, and among this group, only 49.5 percent — 302 out of 610 carers — actually returned completed questionnaires by mail.

As the story reads in the Belgian press, support for infant euthanasia seems much higher than it can be said to be on the basis of these figures, and these are being used in order to back future changes to the law. Lawmaker Jean-Jacques De Gucht, who already supported making euthanasia legal for newborns in the past, does not expect that to happen before Belgium gets a new government, but he does say: “It is already done in hospitals; we just don’t have a legal framework for it.”

“It’s just like with the legalization of euthanasia. Politics are chasing after reality,” he said. Clearly, talking about the large numbers of doctors who favor “active end-of-life decisions” for newborns is also a way of putting pressure on the legislators.

One anonymous physician quoted by Het Nieuwsblad said: “It’s inhuman to support a baby for better or for worse until it finally dies of itself.”

A neonatologist from UZ Gent, Linde Goossens, told the newspaper that babies’ lives are never actively ended in that intensive care unit, acknowledging that such requests  on the part of parents are “very rare.” Doctors at UZ Gent concentrate on alleviating any pain a dying newborn may be experiencing, she explained, adding: “But that's not always the answer I would like to give. In very specific cases it should be possible to my mind to actively end life. Like when a child has severe multiple handicaps, is experiencing pain and shall not live beyond a restricted time. That’s why I would also like to collaborate in view of the law that would create a clear framework.”

Wim Distelmans, co-president of the Belgian euthanasia screening commission,  professor of palliative care and himself a pioneer for euthanasia in Belgium (he is well known for his participation in several extreme cases of euthanasia involving psychic suffering, twins with nonlethal handicaps, and others), fully agrees. “Whoever  actively ends the life of a newborn can be persecuted for infanticide. That is very different from in the Netherlands where a protocol is in force. There, when all the conditions are met for active ending of life, prosecution is simply dismissed.”

He also admitted that such acts are being performed in Belgium “under the radar of the law,” adding that the situation was difficult for doctors and also for parents who cannot speak about the trauma they have gone through.

“Because you never know whether you are talking to someone with another moral or religious belief,” another doctor explained, talking about the specific difficulty of the situations where he had personally euthanized newborns who cannot personally express their death wish. “It goes against our nature and against our training. As doctors, we really want to help as many children as possible to go on living, but sometimes it’s really better,” he said. To put it more bluntly: he thinks in some cases death is better than life.

An intensive care neonatologist from Brussels University Hospital, Gerlant van Berlaer, agreed, describing the obvious stress some newborns go through and the parents who go “against nature” demanding that their child’s life be ended. “What must you say? If I go ahead, I’ll go straight to prison. As a doctor you’re standing with your back to the wall.”

“It’s a public secret that doctors the world over try to help all the same. So do I. But because it can only be done in the dark, it doesn’t necessarily happen the best possible way. Sometimes it’s a lengthy process, like when you stop giving a drip or when you drive up pain medication until breathing stops,” he added, implying that it would be a better solution to give a lethal injection.

This is what the slippery slope of euthanasia is all about.

The lead author of the study, Laure Dombrecht, told Het Laatste Nieuws that the subject “is still a taboo” in Belgium, where abortion, on the other hand, is legal right up to birth for babies with life-threatening or very serious conditions.

“Because after birth you’re not allowed to act legally anymore, some neonatologists experience pressure to intervene before birth,” she underscored. “These are two sides of the same medal,” she said.

This is quite true. The nature and value of a baby’s life does not change radically by the magic of birth, and if it can be killed in the latest stages of pregnancy, why should one stop there? On the other hand, why shouldn’t late-term abortion be viewed as infanticide? And going on from there, where should you draw the line?

Belgium already allows euthanasia for children as soon as they are capable of asking for it — in the neighboring Netherlands, the limit has been fixed at 12 years of age — but the natural trend would be for “mercy killing” to be available at all periods of life.

According to Dombrecht’s survey, neonatal nurses are even more supportive of infant euthanasia than doctors: 73.6 percent against 59.6 percent. She even had an explanation for the discrepancy: she said doctors were probably more cautious because they carry final responsibility.

Is this science or propaganda?

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