Half of Infant Deaths in Flanders (Belgium) Were Euthanasia
by David Rennie in Brussels
Nearly half the newborn babies who died in Flanders over a recent year-long period were helped to die by their doctors, a new study reported yesterday.
Paediatricians in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium either discreetly stopped treating the babies or, in 17 cases, illegally killed them with lethal doses of painkillers.
The study, published in The Lancet, examined the deaths of every baby who died within a year of birth in Flanders between August 1999 and July 2000.
The results of a survey on the causes of death were stark: paediatricians who responded to the survey admitted they had taken "end of life" decisions in more than half the cases.
Most commonly, that involved withholding or withdrawing treatment because physicians believed the baby had no real chance of survival or the baby had no chance of a "bearable future".
In 40 cases, opiate pain killers were used in doses with a potentially life-shortening affect. In 17 cases, a lethal dose or lethal drugs were administered.
Overall, the research yielded information on 253 out of the total of 298 infant deaths in the region over the period. The lethal doses of painkillers, which broke Belgian law, were mainly administered to babies less than a week old.
Most were premature babies with severe congenital malformations or handicaps and what was described as a poor quality of life, or very premature babies with severe brain damage.
Four fifths of the doctors who completed an "attitudinal survey" agreed that "the task of the physician sometimes involves the prevention of unnecessary suffering by hastening death".
The report went further than any other study in exposing the degree to which infant euthanasia has become commonplace in the most liberal regions of northern Europe.
In 2002, Belgium legalised euthanasia for adults who are suffering "constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain", and who are sufficiently conscious to make the request to die. Holland passed a similar law in 1995. In neither country is it legal to put infants to death.
But doctors in Holland have led a public campaign in recent years to have the law changed to reflect what they call the reality that paediatricians routinely assist children to die.
Not all Belgian paediatricians support a change in the law. Dr Gunnar Naulaers, a neonatologist at the Catholic University Hospital in Leuven, told The Telegraph that his colleagues arguably hastened deaths, but only as a side-effect of easing severe pain in critically ill infants.
He said decisions to withhold or withdraw intensive care when an infant's prognosis was "hopeless" happened all over the world, including Britain.
"In this unit, we increase doses until babies are comfortable, and of course at the end of life, higher doses are needed. . . that in healthy babies would be lethal."
It was vital to secure parents' agreement and to let them know when the end was near, Dr Naulaers said. "It's very important the parents should be left with the baby when he's dying, for their sake later."
Some Belgian doctors wanted laws to regulate euthanasia.
"We are a bit frightened about making a law. Where do you put your lines?" Dr Naulaers asked, listing potential pitfalls. "What is a very handicapped baby, and who decides? If you say the parents, what if they are divorced? The patient cannot decide. It is a baby."
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