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Why Does This Evolutionary Biologist Want to Euthanize Handicapped Babies?


Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has written a controversial series of posts in which he advocates medical killing for severely handicapped babies. We have replied (here, here, here, here, here, here). Why would anyone advocate such a thing? What would justify deliberately killing a baby — actually using hospitals and doctors and nurses and medical science to kill children?

Coyne gives his rationale:

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?

Of course, the ethics of aborting handicapped babies in the womb is a matter of considerable controversy, and there is by no means a consensus on it. Furthermore, one of the arguments used to support the pro-life position is that abortion, in addition to being intrinsically immoral, devalues all human life, and endangers handicapped children after birth as well. Coyne’s rationale for the medical killing of babies, which is that we allow abortion of these same children in the womb, gives credence to the pro-life argument. Coyne shows very clearly that there is a slippery slope.

Coyne offers another rationale:

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).

Coyne argues, astonishingly, that the vulnerability of handicapped children justifies killing them. He isn’t (yet) advocating killing handicapped adults. His criterion (for now) for killing severely handicapped people is that they are unaware and can’t make decisions for themselves. In Coyne’s moral world, people who lack “rational faculties to make judgements” have less right to life than rational people do. You have a right to life, unless you are handicapped and don’t know what is happening to you. I have to respect Coyne’s candor, if nothing else.

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… we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection.

Coyne doesn’t understand what “vegetative” means. Vegetative means that the child is unable to experience anything. A “vegetative” child can’t “suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state.” The child can’t “suffer” anything.

Furthermore, pain (for people who aren’t “vegetative”) is a common medical situation: the treatment for it is to treat the pain, not to kill the child. The fact is that handicapped children don’t ordinarily suffer intractable pain. Handicaps such as spina bifida, anencephaly, cerebral palsy, etc., are not intrinsically painful (such children often have an inability to feel pain in parts of their body). Coyne makes no mention whatsoever of medically treating the pain of the babies he proposes to kill. There are many highly effective methods of treating pain — thousands of different medications, devices, and operations that are used every day in hospitals and clinics and in homes around the world to alleviate pain. Much of medical practice is devoted to alleviating pain and suffering. Yet Coyne makes no mention of medically treating the (occasional) pain and suffering of handicapped children. His solution is to kill them.

Coyne sees the trend toward killing patients who suffer, rather than toward alleviating their pain, as a moral advance:

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

Killing handicapped babies is not a moral advance. Devoting extra effort to their medical care, alleviating the (occasional) pain they do suffer, providing them and their families with medical and social and financial help to make their lives as happy and fulfilled as possible would be a moral advance. Respecting the lives of handicapped people is a moral advance. Killing them is moral regress, of a particularly horrendous sort.

Coyne explains the rationale of the euthanasia movement with shocking candor:

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. 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.)

The clarity is bracing. Coyne admits — he seems to celebrate it — that the slippery slope is real. Now that we have normalized abortion and assisted suicide, it’s time to normalize killing of newborns who don’t meet our definition of “fitness.” Let’s treat them, Coyne argues, like we treat our dogs. Love our babies when they’re healthy. Kill them when they are handicapped or a burden. And our babies’ vulnerability — the fact that they don’t understand — is, in the moral universe of euthanasia advocates, all the more reason to kill them. Life, it seems, is a right for the strong and the rational, but expendable for the weak and unaware.

What is particularly chilling about Coyne’s advocacy of infant euthanasia is not merely that he proposes killing handicapped babies. It is chilling that he makes no endorsement of the proper medical care of these children — where is his advocacy for the medical treatment of their (occasional) pain or of their handicap? Furthermore, it is chilling that he uses their vulnerability — the fact that as babies they are unaware and defenseless — as a reason, not to protect them, but to kill them.

So, why does Jerry Coyne want to kill handicapped babies? He has lots of reasons. But they all seem to boil down to one reason: He wants to kill them because they’re handicapped babies. Such honesty is rare from an advocate of euthanasia.

Euthanasia, fundamentally, is about killing vulnerable people. It should be resisted with every bit of our strength.

Photo credit: Pexels, via Pixabay.