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Outrage as Church backs calls for severely disabled babies to be killed at birth

London Daily Mail | November 13, 2006
By NEIL SEARS

The Church of England has broken with tradition dogma by calling for doctors to be allowed to let sick newborn babies die.

Christians have long argued that life should preserved at all costs - but a bishop representing the national church has now sparked controversy by arguing that there are occasions when it is compassionate to leave a severely disabled child to die.

And the Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, who is the vice chair of the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council, has also argued that the high financial cost of keeping desperately ill babies alive should be a factor in life or death decisions.

The shock new policy from the church has caused outrage among the disabled.

A spokeswoman for the UK Disabled People's Council, which represents tens of thousands of members in 140 different organisations, said: "How can the Church of England say that Christian compassion includes killing of disabled babies either through the withdrawing or withholding of treatment or by active euthanasia?

"It is not for doctors or indeed anyone else to determine whether a baby?s life is worthwhile simply on the grounds of impairment or health condition."

The church's surprise call comes just a week after the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology sparked fury by calling for a debate on the mercy killing of disabled infants.

But it has been made in a carefully thought out official Church of England paper written by Bishop Butler for a public inquiry into the ethical issues surrounding the care of long premature or desperately ill newborn babies.

The inquiry, by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, began two years ago and its findings are due to be published in London - but the church's contribution to the debate has been leaked in advance.

The Nuffield Council, an independent body which issues ethical guidelines for doctors, began the inquiry to take account of scientific advances which mean increasingly disabled and premature babies can technically be kept alive.

In practice, doing so can be controversial - with the three months premature Charlotte Wyatt a case in point.

The Portsmouth baby weighed just 1lb at birth, and had severe brain and lung damage. Doctors wanted to be allowed to leave her to die, but her parents successfully campaigned through the courts against them.

Now that the child is three, however, and could be cared for at home, her parents have separated and are considered unsuitable to look after. In future cases doctors may work to guidelines proposed by the Nuffield inquiry.

In the Church of England's contribution to the inquiry, Bishop Butler wrote: "It may in some circumstances be right to choose to withold or withdraw treatment, knowing it will possibly, probably, or even certainly result in death."

The church stressed that it was not saying some lives were not worth living, but said there were "strong proportionate reasons" for "overriding the presupposition that life should be maintained".

The bishop's submission continued: "There may be occasions where, for a Christian, compassion will override the 'rule' that life should inevitably be preserved.

"Disproportionate treatment for the sake of prolonging life is an example of this.

The church said it would support the potentially fatal withdrawal of treatment only if all alternatives had been considered, "so that the possibly lethal act would only be performed with manifest reluctance."

Yet the Revd Butler's submission makes clear that there are a wide range of acceptable reasons to withdraw care from a child - with the cost of the care among the considerations.

"Great caution should be exercised in brining questions of cost into the equation when considering what treatment might be provided," he wrote.

"The principle of justice inevitably means that the potential cost of treatment itself, the longer term costs of health care and education and opportunity cost to the NHS in terms of saving other lives have to be considered."

The church also urges all the parties involved in care for critically ill babies should be realistic in their expectations, demands, and claims.

The submission says: "The principle of humility asks that members of the medical profession restrain themselves from claiming greater powers to heal than they can deliver.

"It asks that parents restrain themselves from demanding the impossible.":

UK Disabled Peoples Council spokeswoman Simone Aspis said the group's members were appalled that the Church was joining doctors in calling for disabled babies to be left to die.

"It appears that the whole debate on whether disabled babies are worth keeping alive is being dominated by professionals and religious people without any consultation with disabled people," she said.

Out of babies born at just 22 weeks of pregnancy or less, 98 per cent currently die. In Holland babies born before 25 weeks are not given medial treatment.

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