The man who would kill disabled babies

World expert on medical ethics is condemned by doctors for saying that new-born children with severe disabilities should have their lives ended by lethal injection
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The Independent Online
DOCTORS' leaders yesterday condemned an expert on medical ethics who called for babies with severe disabilities to be given lethal injections to end their lives.

Professor Peter Singer, deputy director of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Australia, said that in cases where doctors and parents agreed that a baby's disabilities were so overwhelming as to be incompatible with a decent quality of life, it would be kinder to end the baby's life deliberately rather than leave it to die.

"The standard practice is to withhold treatment such as antibiotics or in some cases feeding so the babies do die either from untreated infections or from starvation and dehydration," he said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I think that is cruel and inhumane. It causes unnecessary suffering to the infants and their families. Once you make a decision that it is better that the baby dies you ought to be able to make sure that it dies easily and swiftly. That means by giving it a lethal injection."

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said that although there were cases in which it might be appropriate to withhold or withdraw treatment there was no justification for killing children. Guidelines on when to withhold or withdraw treatment were issued by the college last year.

Professor Richard Cook, consultant neo-natalogist and spokesman for the college, said: "What I feel about people who want to bump patients off is that they are doing it for themselves. It is very difficult for doctors faced with patients for whom they can do nothing surrounded by parents and nurses who are distressed. The easiest thing is to bump them off. I don't think that is the right thing to do."

The guidelines specify five situations in which it may be right to withdraw treatment, if the doctors, nurses and parents agree. They include a child who is brain dead, a child who has no chance of survival and for whom treatment may prolong their suffering and one who may survive but who would be so impaired that treatment would in effect add to their suffering.

The British Medical Association said there was a key ethical distinction between killing and leaving a patient to die that lay at the heart of a doctor's duty to their patients. Dr Bill O'Neill, its science and ethics adviser, said: "There is a very important difference between withholding treatment and deliberately doing something to end a patient's life. Patients are not just left to die - all efforts are made to ensure they are comfortable and they do not suffer."

Professor Singer, who is in the UK to give a series of seminars, was challenged on the Today programme by Jacqueline Lang, a lawyer and author of Human Lives. She said: ''We can eradicate suffering by eradicating the sufferer. It matters how we get good results. We cannot use any means to achieve an end, however good that end might be."

But he said he was "concerned for the needless suffering which exists now, as a result of current practice".

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