TCS Daily

Beasts of Burden

By Sydney Smith - December 8, 2004 12:00 AM

It could never happen here. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery, segregation, these are moral failings of lesser cultures. While we in the West may have once indulged in such behavior, we've evolved beyond such things. We're too civilized, too enlightened by reason to ever again succumb. Or so we like to think.

Maybe we should think again. From the Netherlands, once the epitome of civilized tolerance, comes the revelation that one of the country's top hospitals, with the blessing of the Dutch judicial authorities, has been conducting a sort of medico-legal experiment in neonatal euthanasia. And at one of the most prestigious universities in our own civilized States, the man considered by some the most influential living philosopher, teaches that those neonates are less deserving of our concern than animals.

At first glance, a few Dutch mercy killings and the academic musings of philosopher seem far removed from the crimes against humanity that occur in less "enlightened" corners of the world. The intent of the Dutch, after all, is to eliminate suffering, not to cause it. And philosopher/ethicist Peter Singer doesn't advocate genocide, slavery, or segregation -- he simply believes that our moral compass should be guided by utilitarian principles, not religious ones. But on further inspection, there is a commonality between the Dutch, the Princeton professor, the Sudanese, the Serbs, and everyone who would subjugate others. That commonality is the subjective judgment that some lives are less worthy than others.

To be sure, both the Dutch and the professor would disagree. They would say that genocide, slavery, and segregation spring from emotions run amuck -- fear, hate, greed, jealousy. In contrast, the Dutch would argue, their judgment that certain neonates should be euthanized is based on science. Doctors know the technological limits of medical science. Free of any emotional attachments to the infant, they are in the best position to recognize when a disease is beyond those limits, and likely to cause inordinate lifelong suffering. In those circumstances, the only way to eliminate the suffering is to eliminate the sufferer. The babies can't tell them how much they suffer, but the doctors know.

Professor Singer would argue that his judgment about what types of life are worthy of protection is based on reason and logic. But he, too, makes distinctions based on emotions. To be a person, one must be able to comprehend the future. Some people are incapable of this -- newborn babies, the demented elderly, the severely retarded -- but animals are, even if their concept of the future is limited to what's going to happen in the next few minutes. Animals, therefore, are more wholly people than even normal human babies, and more deserving of certain inalienable rights. The saving grace of the normal newborn in Singer's system is that most people love normal babies, so much so that when a baby is unwanted, others are more than willing to step in and care for it. And because the preference of the many is to love normal babies, it would be unethical to kill them. Few are those who love a sick or deformed baby, however. They take up too many resources -- both emotional and financial -- so it's perfectly ethical to kill them. To be loved is to be.

For both the Dutch doctors and Professor Singer, then, the key to whether or not a person's life is worthy of protection depends not so much on science and reason, as on emotions. A life is only valuable in so far as it is judged to be so by others. So far, according to the head of Groningen Hospital's pediatric clinic, under the experimental euthanasia protocol, only children with severe spina bifida have been euthanized. The doctor didn't say how severe they were, but most cases of spina bifida, even severe ones, are treatable. The treatment just takes a lot of time, money, and effort. And when Peter Singer took his students to a neonatal

intensive care unit, one of them summed up the crux of the dilemma thus:

"Is it ethical to keep a baby alive without the chances of it being healthy and able to go to public school, whether a special school or not, or whether it would hurt the baby and everyone involved?" The problem with premature babies and those with severe spina bifida is not so much that they're hopeless, but that they're a burden.

This then, is the common thread that binds Singerian ethics, Dutch medicine, and tyranny of all stripes. The weak exist only at the discretion of the strong. Should the weak become troublesome, then they're fair game, be they defective babies, Bosnian Muslims, or non-Arab Sudanese. We in the West may try to cloak our true motives in the language of science and reason, but it's all of the same cloth. Neonatal euthanasia isn't so much a step down the slippery slope to tyranny as it is a wholesale embrace of it.

Sydney Smith is a TCS contributor. She is a family physician who has been in private practice since 1991. She is board certified by the American Board of Family Practice, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice. She is the publisher of MedPundit.


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