ROME, May 9, 2011 ( – Does the modern concern for “human rights” in medical practice actually erode the real rights of real humans? An editorial appearing this week in the English language edition of the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano newspaper, points to the growing acceptance in the medical community of withholding life-saving treatment and resuscitation from newborns based on the so-called “quality of life” or “best interests” criteria. 

Medical ethics, the paper’s Carlo Bellieni said, has adopted a “tragic and mercantile vision of life” and human rights that assumes that a particular life “can be considered unacceptable.”

The research suggests, he said, “that a high percentage of doctors think that in cases of disability (physical or mental) death is preferable to life.”

“It is no surprise, then, that in some countries in the case of the illness of senile dementia and patients who are unable to feed themselves, care is reduced … or hydration is withheld and that people with mental disabilities have become ‘invisible’ for the health care system.”

Bellieni is a neonatologist and a bioethicist who serves as Secretary of the Bioethics Committee of the Italian Pediatrics Society and is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. He pointed at medical protocols widely accepted “in many countries, and significantly in those with a higher standard of living,” that result not only in the “devaluing of the life of a foetus, but to the systematic erosion of rights for those already born.”

Bellieni wrote that a new “mercantile” ethical standard, based on materialist, utilitarian principles that come almost to the point of eugenics, can be most easily seen in the criteria used by doctors in deciding whether to resuscitate sick or disabled newborns. The widespread acceptance of these medical protocols if “astounding,” said Bellieni.

In effect, he wrote, they are “an extension of the abortion law after birth with the difference that in the case of newborns, death is not directly provoked but medical care is simply suspended, with the same result.”

Recent research has shown that physicians in many western countries now routinely deny life-saving treatment to newborn infants. “It is sufficient to read the scientific literature to see how the rights of babies to medical care have been willingly reduced compared to those which adults enjoy,” he said.

In our time, Bellieni said, “lip-service is paid to the rights of infants but in reality [doctors are] ready to archive those rights when an infant doesn’t correspond to an ideal model or expectations.”

Even more ominously, he said, a new criterion has entered the mix in medical ethics that allows physicians to judge how much a newborn child would be a “burden” to parents when deciding whether to resuscitate.

He quoted Michael Gross, a political ethicist and professor at the University of Haifa, who wrote in the journal Bioethics in 2002, saying, “There exists a general endorsement of neonaticide subject to a parent’s assessment of the newborn’s interest broadly defined to consider physical harm” as well as harm to third parties. Gross came to the blunt conclusion, “Abortion, particularly late-term abortion, and neonaticide, selective non-treatment of newborns, are feasible management strategies for fetuses or newborns diagnosed with severe abnormalities.”

Bellieni noted that so-called “quality of life” or “best interests” criteria commonly applied by doctors have lead to the inclusion of the type of family, the age of the mother, or even her profession, as factors deciding whether to resuscitate newborns. In some cases preference is given “to those conceived in vitro or those who have a mother who is a lawyer.”

Bellieni also quotes Dominic Wilkinson, a neonatologist and philosopher who, writing in the latest issue of the American Journal of Bioethics, said, “In some circumstances it is justifiable for parents and doctors to decide to allow a baby to die even if his life would deserve to be lived.”

Such criteria, Bellieni wrote, presuppose the ability of doctors to predict the future. “Today, the decision to resuscitate a newborn is made by weighing his future well-being with the burden that an eventual disability would cause him; and if the scale leans toward the latter, treatment is interrupted since the life in this case, ‘does not deserve to be lived’.”

“This is a real and true erosion of rights: not negligence, but a real and scientific selection of subjects to whom rights are taken away in favor of others.”