Euthanasia debate starts with Groningen Protocol


In the March 10 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, two doctors from the Netherlands, Eduard Verhagen and Pieter Sauer, published an article entitled “The Groningen Protocol.” This protocol was designed to establish criteria under which physicians in the Netherlands could kill disabled newborns. Verhagen and Sauer’s recommendations end up revealing a good deal about the twisted philosophy underlying the modern euthanasia movement.

In the Netherlands, anyone over the age of 16 can request physician-assisted suicide. However, it is illegal for doctors to kill children under sixteen, on the grounds that the children are too immature to give informed consent. Yet, roughly fifteen to twenty “mercy killings” of newborns are done each year, and in the twenty-two cases cited by Verhagen and Sauer in their study, none of the doctors were prosecuted under Dutch law.

Verhagen and Sauer were determined, however, to provide doctors in the Netherlands with a scientific method for deciding if a child is “suitable” for euthanasia, under the assumption that a standard methodology would make such a practice less objectionable to authorities. After studying the cases of 22 children born with spina bifida, a disorder resulting from a poorly formed spinal cord, they established a five-fold criteria with which doctors could decide whether or not to euthanize small children.

The criteria are a showcase of heartlessness and cold-blooded utilitarianism. In their paper, the authors rely heavily on the idea that children who will not possess an “acceptable quality of life” are prime candidates for euthanasia.

The top criteria when considering whether to kill a newborn is whether the child is expected to have an “extremely poor quality of life, (suffering) in terms of functional disability, pain, discomfort, poor prognosis and hopelessness.” The underlying idea of this criteria is that a life lived in pain is not one worth living.

Indeed, to the authors, sustaining life is not their primary mission. For them, keeping the fires of life burning through intensive care “is not a goal in itself.” Rather, its “aim is not only survival of the infant, but also an acceptable quality of life.” Thus, providing an acceptable lifestyle is more important than saving lives.

But what is an acceptable quality of life? While the authors are extremely vague about this, even admitting that it is “difficult to define” and highly subjective, their focus on pain and discomfort indicates that an “acceptable” life is one largely free of suffering. Rather than live with the suffering associated with spina bifida, “death would be more humane than continued life.”

This is an insidious attack on the very nature of human life itself. Instead of seeing life as a precious gift, Verhagen and Sauer have reduced the whole worth of person’s life into the amount of pleasure an individual can squeeze out of it. “Unbearable suffering” only gets in the way of feasting on nectar and ambrosia. If the suffering cannot be alleviated, they argue the patient is better off dead.

The authors cannot even make the poor excuse that they are only acting as compassionate agents for the patient. Of the five criteria, three center on the potential burden that a disabled child might place on other individuals and society. Potential self-sufficiency, inability to communicate, and expected hospital dependency all determine whether or not a child will be killed. A child that cannot care for itself will be a tremendous burden on his caretakers and ultimately the state. By including these criteria in the list, the authors betray a naked hostility toward those who are dependent upon others.

It would be reassuring to claim that such attitudes about life are isolated to the Netherlands or the unique situation there. But the utilitarian philosophy embodied in the Groningen Protocols is rampant in our own society. It supports the “right-to-die” law in Oregon, and is the central thesis underlying the abortion movement. It is time for we as a society to reject the view of life as a commodity to be enjoyed, and embrace life as a gift — a thing of value in and of itself. Otherwise, the ramifications will spread beyond the 70,000 who today live with spina bifida. It will come to affect all who are deemed unfit to live.

Sean Paroski, whose column appears every Thursday, is a senior applied mathematics major.