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Dying babies shouldn't be viewed as spare parts

Posted by Anthony Ozimic on 11 March 2016

An NHS doctor has proposed asking mothers to not have abortions in order to make organs available after birth

The front-page story of last weekend's Mail on Sunday newspaper revealed proposals to ask mothers of terminally-ill unborn children to consider donating their babies' organs. The proposal includes asking mothers to consider not choosing abortion in order to make organs available after birth.

From the story:

"Women whose babies develop fatal defects in the early stages of pregnancy will be given advice on going ahead with the birth so the NHS can harvest their organs, The Mail on Sunday can reveal. Most expectant mothers opt for termination after being told the devastating news their child has no chance of survival once born. But now, amid a chronic shortage of donated organs, mums will be 'supported' to have the baby at nine months so that the child's vital organs can be taken for transplant ... The move was revealed at a medical conference where NHS transplant surgeons said they wanted to take more organs from babies nationally to address a dire shortage."

This proposal raises three major ethical questions. Firstly, it could reinforce the idea that abortion is a morally acceptable choice. Secondly, it could lead to babies being kept alive artificially and killed for their organs. Thirdly, it implies that babies can be reduced to spare-parts. Other problematic ethical issues include the legal ownership of the babies' bodies, inaccurate diagnoses of disability, and over-estimated assessments of the need for organ donations.

Humane approach needed

Dr Anthony McCarthy, a bioethicist and SPUC's director of education, explains further:

"Parents should be offered the humane approach of  'perinatal hospice' : loving welcome and care for their dying baby. Babies should be spared abortion because they are babies - not because they are useful to others if taken to term.

"It is one thing for the baby to be treasured during life, then used for organ donation after he or she has truly died and the parents have said goodbye. It is something quite different for the baby to be treated as valuable only as means to an end, not as someone's son or daughter whose life is precious however brief that life may be.

Serious ethical questions

"With some kinds of organ harvesting such as from so-called 'beating heart cadavers',  there are also very serious questions whether the donor is in fact still alive when the organs are taken. Lethal discrimination against the unborn has undermined the dignity of the disabled and dying after birth as well.  In that context it is perhaps unsurprising that sick babies are not seen as valuable in themselves when it comes to organ harvesting."

In brief, the proposals imply a discriminatory disrespect towards the lives and dignity of disabled people both before and after birth. It was therefore encouraging to see a high-profile celebrity defend the value of her disabled child. Katie Price, the glamour model, said:

"I was young when I had Harvey and I admit it: If I'd have known he was blind when I had him, as harsh as it sounds, I probably would have aborted him ... Now if they said I was going to have a child with disabilities, I would definitely keep it. I would even adopt a child with disabilities ... I absolutely love Harvey so much. I would never change anything about him ... Yes it’s challenging, but it’s also rewarding. He's a great character and I love him. I don't think anyone should be ashamed at all if they've got a child with disabilities."

SPUC Youth Conference

This weekend's SPUC youth conference will also feature some great defences of the rights and dignity of people with disabilities. The conference will hear from Dr Colin Harte about the late, great Alison Davis; from Catherine Macmillan about her disabled daughter;  and Bobby Shindler, about his tragic late sister Terri Schiavo.

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