Quebec study illustrates need for baby born-alive law

Bioethicist John Haas clarifies church teaching on extraordinary medical care.

Bioethicist John Haas clarifies church teaching on extraordinary medical care.

A Quebec study showing a 20-fold increase since 2000 in the number of babies who survive abortion only to die in hospital demonstrates the need for a Canadian “born-alive infant protection law,” says the Toronto-based Campaign Life Coalition.

The Quebec study, just published in Neonatology, studied 12,000-plus infant deaths between 1987 and 2012 and found that because ultrasound testing for birth defects was leading to an increase in late-term abortions, it had also caused a 19.4-fold increase in babies who survived their abortions only to die, mostly, within three hours. The study reports the total since the year 2000 as both 218 and 216 infant deaths.

Both the study’s authors and a follow-up National Post report suggest that Quebec’s problem is repeated across Canada and is compounded by a lack of consistent ethical guidelines to deal with abortion-surviving babies. “How are such infants cared for?” the report wonders. “If not resuscitated, is palliative care provided? Are the infants admitted to neonatal units or do they die in the delivery room? Are parents informed if the fetus survives? To what degree are women counselled beforehand about the (5 per cent) possibility of survival?”

Jack Fonseca, a project manager at Campaign Life Coalition, is concerned whether enough is being done to revive and sustain children born alive despite their parents’ wishes and the best efforts of medical staff to the contrary. “This report clearly shows that Canada needs a ‘born alive infant protection act’,” he said.

The United States enacted such a law, the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act, in 2002 after a 98-0 vote in the Senate and 380-15 vote in the House of Representatives. Fonseca said the issue arose in Canada in 2013, when three Conservative MPs called for an RCMP investigation into 491 post-abortive infant deaths counted across Canada by Statistics Canada between 2000 and 2009. “The question again is: are these babies being left to die by withholding treatment which otherwise would have allowed them to survive?” asked Fonseca. “Are they only getting palliative care, but treatment that would reasonably be expected to help them survive and thrive, is deliberately being withheld?”

The Quebec report indicates that most of the cases of post-abortive infant death involved babies with abnormalities that caused quick death. But Fonseca is sure the researchers did not observe 12,000 infant deaths. “They are relying on the medical staff on the scene, who are unlikely to admit they did anything potentially criminal, such as knowingly withholding life-saving treatment for children with a reasonable hope of surviving.”

The Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology is in the process of developing new guidelines around abortion, but the very fact that researchers raised concerns indicates to Fonseca that they may have concluded that unethical practices were occurring. “Are they reviving babies or letting them die?” Even pre-born children discovered to have crippling abnormalities “deserve to live as full a live as possible.” Fonseca adds the report suggests it is too easy for medical staff to let a child die when parents already want this and expect the medical staff to provide it. “That is why we need clear legislation,” said Fonseca, “with criminal sanctions against doctors and nurses who don’t provide proper care for children who survive abortion.”

Many Christian ethicists say that extraordinary care is not required and that sometimes leaving a child to pass away could be permitted. John Haas, president of the U.S. National Catholic Bioethics Center, explained that Catholic moral teaching requires parents and medical staff to sustain the child’s life inside and outside the womb. “They must try to bring the pregnancy to term. Of course, they cannot kill the child ahead of time.” They are not required, Haas explained, to take “extraordinary” or disproportionate” medical measures be taken to prolong life, especially when such means also sustain suffering. In such cases, when it is clear that death is imminent, “they must do everything they can to ease the child’s suffering.”

A version of this article originally appeared Jan. 20 at LifeSiteNews and is used with permission.

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