The Endless “Slide” of Neonatal Euthanasia

November 30, 2021

Slide is placed in quotation marks, because can we give this name to what is already in some way written in the law, and which, under the pressure of various lobbies, will end up being explicitly approved after having been practiced with complete impunity?

A recent study has thus brought to light the practice of deliberate euthanasia on newborns for whom the medical profession has considered there to be “no hope of a bearable future.” These practices concerned 10% of newborns (0-1 year old) who died in Flanders between September 2016 and December 2017, i.e. 24 babies.

This practice is illegal in Belgium and yet no authority seems to take offense. The law only authorizes the euthanasia of a minor if he is capable of discernment and conscious at the time of his request for euthanasia. Which is already exorbitant and frightening: what discernment can be expected from a child, necessarily under the influence of those around him.

In her thesis, which served as the basis for the study in question, Laure Dombrecht, a researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), mentioned a comparable study carried out in 1999-2000. The proportion of newborn euthanasia by injection of lethal substances has increased from 7% to 10% since this previous survey.

The study distinguishes, among what it calls “end-of-life medical decisions” which concerned 61% of these babies, on the one hand the decisions not to start or to stop “life-sustaining treatment,” (e.g. ventilators); and on the other hand, administering certain substances to the baby. Note that the term euthanasia does not appear anywhere in the article.

In terms of the doctor's intentions, the study distinguishes three situations:

1. The doctor does not intend to cause or hasten the death of the baby, but takes into consideration, without it being the goal, the potential effect of hastening death (e.g., the decision not to administer antibiotics, and/or the administration of morphine or sedatives).

2. The potential effect of precipitous death is not the primary goal, but is partly intended by the physician.

3. The doctor has the explicit intention of causing death (e.g., by the injection of a lethal muscle relaxant).

While the ethical value of the medical decision is quite different depending on whether one is at the first or second point (unwanted death v. wanted death), the study does not provide a separate classification of cases in these two categories of intention, either from the point of view of the discontinuation of treatment, or from the point of view of the administration of substances.

The criterion of proportionality (in stopping treatment or in dosing substances) is also not mentioned, although it is decisive in determining the doctor's intention.

Doctors having proceeded to euthanize infants by lethal injection reported that 91% of the time the main reason for their action was that there was no hope of a “bearable future” for the child. In other words, these children still had a real chance of survival, but the medical profession - no doubt in agreement with their parents - felt that their life was not worth living to the end.

So why do practitioners allow themselves to depart from the legal framework when it comes to children unable to express themselves?

The authors of the study question the need to regulate this “practice,” like the quasi-legal framework established in the Netherlands through the Gröningen Protocol. Such “supervision” would actually mean conditional authorization of infanticide by a doctor.