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Darwinian Biologist Endorses Killing Handicapped Babies Who “Suffer”

Jerry Coyne

This odious stuff never ends. Darwinist biologist Jerry Coyne endorses euthanasia for severely handicapped infants. Here are Coyne’s arguments, with my replies.

The question of whether one should be able to euthanize newborns who have horrible conditions or deformities, or are doomed to a life that cannot by any reasonable light afford happiness, has sparked heated debate.  Philosopher Peter Singer has argued that euthanasia is the merciful action in such cases, and I agree with him. If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born?  I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral.

I agree with Coyne that there is no moral difference between aborting a handicapped fetus and killing a handicapped baby. I believe that both are profoundly immoral. Coyne condones such killing.

After all, newborn babies aren’t aware of death, aren’t nearly as sentient as an older child or adult, and have no rational faculties to make judgments (and if there’s severe mental disability, would never develop such faculties).

Many people aren’t “aware of death” — normal infants and toddlers, people with severe traumatic brain damage, people with Alzheimer’s disease. Heck, people who are sleeping aren’t aware of death at the moment. How does that justify killing them? A severely handicapped newborn wouldn’t be aware of rape either.

Just how is it that “unawareness” of an evil act justifies the act? If anything, unawareness makes the victim more vulnerable, and ought to spur those of us who are aware to offer innocents greater protection, not less protection.

It makes little sense to keep alive a suffering child who is doomed to die or suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state. After all, doctors and parents face no legal penalty for simply withdrawing care from such newborns, like turning off a respirator, but Singer suggests that we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection. I agree.

There are situations in which continuation of heroic medical treatment (surgery, respirators, antibiotics, etc.) merely prolongs the process of dying, and in which it is ethical to withdraw such heroic care. I have done it many times (I’m a pediatric neurosurgeon). But the purpose of the withdrawal is not to cause death, but to cease interfering with the natural course of a disease, when no good can come of heroic treatment. That is a very different thing, morally and legally, from deliberately killing a child by injecting him with a lethal dose of potassium or a barbiturate.

The Doctors Trial

Coyne goes on to recount the uproar over Singer’s endorsement of the Groningen protocol, which is a legal innovation employed in Holland for killing handicapped infants.

For these views Singer has been demonized by disability rights advocates, who have called for his firing and disrupted his talks (see my post about that here). All for just raising a reasonable ethical question that should be considered and discussed!

Most of the “disability rights advocates” who have protested Singer’s endorsement of killing handicapped infants are handicapped adults who, as infants, were the very people Singer proposes killing. Disrupting a talk is rude, but if there’s ever a justification for it, it would seem that disrupting the talk of a highly regarded philosopher who advocates killing you as a baby might count as justified.

One imagines that Coyne and Singer would not sit with equanimity through a lecture in which the speaker advocated killing atheist biologists and philosophers in the crib.

After all, fifty years ago the same kind of opprobrium would have been leveled at those calling for voluntary euthanasia (assisted suicide) of terminally ill adults, but now that’s legal in several places in the world; as Wikipedia notes, “As of June 2016, human euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Colombia, and Luxembourg. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Canada, and in the US states of Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Vermont, Montana, Washington DC, and California.”

It’s true that many of the euthanasia policies that are becoming more accepted today were verboten fifty years ago. I use “verboten” deliberately, as one prominent example of disapproval of euthanasia in that era was the decision by the judges in the Nazi Doctors Trial in 1946. Sixteen doctors were convicted of crimes against humanity, and seven were hanged. Some of those convictions were for euthanizing handicapped children.

Note to Dr. Coyne: When your rationalizations for killing handicapped children were used by defense counsel in the Nazi Doctors Trial, it’s time to rethink your ethics.

This change in views about euthanasia and assisted suicide are [sic] the result of a tide of increasing morality in our world…

What? Reintroducing medical practices for which Nazi doctors were hanged is “a tide of increasing morality in our world”? Goodness gracious.

It’s time to add to the discussion the euthanasia of newborns, who have no ability or faculties to decide whether to end their lives. Although discussing the topic seems verboten now, I believe some day the practice will be widespread, and it will be for the better.

I too suspect that killing handicapped people will become more widespread. This will not be “for the better.”

 After all, we euthanize our dogs and cats when to prolong their lives would be torture, so why not extend that to humans? Dogs and cats, like newborns, can’t make such a decision, and so their caregivers take the responsibility. (I have done this myself to a pet, as have many of you, and firmly believe it’s the right thing to do. Our pain at making such a decision is lessened knowing that dogs and cats, like newborns, don’t know about death and thus don’t fear it.)

We do all sorts of things to pets — we euthanize them, we cage them, we buy and sell them, we neuter and spay them, we breed them. If Coyne’s analogy to animals allows killing of handicapped children just like we kill sick pets, why wouldn’t the analogy justify caging, buying and selling, neutering and breeding children as well?

The reason we don’t allow euthanasia of newborns is because humans are seen as special, and I think this comes from religion — in particular, the view that humans, unlike animals, are endowed with a soul.

Both humans and animals have souls. Humans have spiritual souls, created in God’s image, which distinguishes them from animals. Coyne dismisses theology and philosophy, of which he is ignorant.

It’s the same mindset that, in many places, won’t allow abortion of fetuses that have severe deformities. When religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia.

The world is replete with dead ideologies that died waiting for religion to “vanish.”

Just the Beginning

Certainly, Christian morality is on the wane in the West (it is surging in Africa and Asia). The waning of Christian morality, and Christian respect for life in its sanctity, will have horrendous consequences, of which killing handicapped children is just the beginning.

My view, then, aligns with Singer’s: a child falling in any of the classes above should be considered as a subject for euthanasia, and it should be legal if the doctors and parents concur. As for the “slippery slope” argument — that this will lead to Nazi-like eugenics — well, this hasn’t come to pass in places where assisted suicide or euthanasia of adults is legal. Since the newborn can’t decide, it’s up to the parents, with advice (and maybe consent) of the doctors.

Killing handicapped children because their lives are unworthy of life won’t lead to Nazi medical practice. It is Nazi medical practice.

The pain of these newborns, and of making these decisions, is evident in a piece in yesterday’s New York Times’ “The Stone” section (a philosophy column), provocatively called “You should not have let your baby die.” (What the author means is that “you should have killed your baby.”) It describes the situation of parents whose baby was born with “trisomy 18”: three rather than the normal two copies of chromosome 18. Trisomy 21, three copies of the smaller 21st chromosome, is what produces Down Syndrome. But unlike the Down case, trisomy 18, involving imbalance of a larger chromosome, produces a severe condition, with most children dying horrible deaths soon after birth. A few, though, can live into their 20s and 30s.

Therein lies the dilemma. Should you take that chance? The child described by author Gary Comstock, a philosophy professor at North Carolina State University, was in dire shape, forced to breathe on a respirator and unable to survive without one. The odds that that child could live in a decent state were nil. After agonizing over what to do, the parents decided to take the legal course of withdrawing care: removing the respirator. The child slowly suffocates.

The notion that handicapped children intractably suffer is a lie. I’ve treated thousands of these kids. Most of the conditions that cause severe neurological impairment aren’t painful and don’t inherently cause physical suffering. Spina bifida, holoprosencephaly, various trisomies and anencephaly don’t “hurt,” and in fact the children afflicted are often quite content babies. They are loved by their families, and they can enjoy life in accordance with their physical limitations.

Most people with spina bifida go to school, get a job, and many get married and have families. More severely disabled children (such as those with anencephaly) can live for several years, and can be quite happy. Anencephaly does not mean “brain death” — these kids have profound developmental limitations, but they clearly can feel things and experience emotions.

I cared for a little girl with anencephaly for several years. Her mother brought her to my office for regular check-ups. The child was content, loved to be held and fed by her mother (who always dressed her beautifully), and her mother loved her dearly. She died at 4 years of age from an infection, but she didn’t suffer particularly. If anything, her life seemed happier than most, from her perspective.

Encroaching Materialism and Darwinism

Some people with severe handicaps at birth can achieve quite a bit in life. My friend Karin Muraszko was born with spina bifida and needed extensive surgery and a brain shunt as a child. I met her when I was a medical student. She wasn’t a patient — she was a resident in neurosurgery, and I followed her on rounds and learned from her. She is now Professor and Chairman of Neurological Surgery at the University of Michigan, and she has professorships in pediatrics, communicable diseases, and plastic surgery. She has served on the American Board of Neurological Surgery, and is one of the most respected clinicians and researchers in my field.

She is married and has two kids, and she is director of the Shunt Project, which is an organization devoted to providing medical care for children (like her) with severe neurological handicaps in poor countries.

To propose, as Dr. Coyne does, that she should have been killed at birth because of her “suffering” is a particularly odious example of the encroachment of materialist and Darwinist philosophy on our culture. It should be resisted, with every bit of our strength.

Photo: Nazi Doctors Trial, sentencing of Karl Brandt, via Wikicommons.