Elaine Freeman in “The ‘God’ Committee”: infanticide and euthanasia logically flow from arguments for aborting children with birth defects

Elaine Freeman, The ‘God’ Committee, published May 21, 1972, in the New York Times


[Opening vignette by Freeman]

The baby is a mongoloid born with duodenal atresia, an intestinal obstruction.  The parents, professional people in Maryland, refuse permission for the surgery that will enable the infant to survive, deciding that it would be unfair to their two normal children to bring a mongoloid into the home.  Doctors at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore seek help from the courts, which in Maryland have the power to appoint a guardian who will authorize necessary medical care for a child when the parents won’t.  A senior member of the judiciary advises them that the courts would not force the parents–or society–to bear the burden of rearing such a child.

Accordingly, the baby’s bassinet is wheeled to a dark corner of the nursery where in 15 days it becomes dehydrated enough to die a “natural death.”

[later in the article]

For many doctors and parents, the tough ethical problems would be solved if the infant’s handicaps could only be determined before birth.  To them, the abortion issue is far less troubling than the question of withholding treatment.

With the technique of amniocentesis, genetic scientists have achieved a high degree of accuracy in predicting mongoloid births.  By inserting a needle in the womb, they withdraw some of the mother’s amniotic fluid; the fetal cells floating in the fluid are then grown in the laboratory and their chromosomes inspected for the telltale extra mongolism chromosomes.  (As yet the method is not feasible in the early stages of pregnancy when abortion is simpler and safer, however).

Refined techniques of intrauterine diagnosis could one day also allow detection and abortion of the fetus with meningomyelocele.  Theoretically, a number of detection mechanisms are possible.


To Dr. Kaback, infanticide and abortion for a congenital disease are biologically the same:  “You’re killing life.”  Yet, in psychological terms, he maintains, having an abortion is quite different for a woman from giving birth to a live child and knowing that the child has been killed.  “I don’t think that human consciousness and psychology as it exists in our society today could tolerate euthanasia. Yet 20 years ago,” he muses, “our society wouldn’t have tolerated extensive abortion.  Our mores change.”

But Catholics, even a liberal like Dr. Andre Hellegers, the director of the Kennedy Institute for Human Reproduction and Bioethics at Georgetown University, do not agree that mores change so quickly.  I don’t equate contraception with abortion, but a fetus is life,” says Dr. Hellegers, who as a member of the Papal Commission on birth control was among the majority who favored contraception.  If the reason for an abortion is abnormalcy in the fetus, Hellegers says, “then you logically come to the destruction of extrauterine life.”

[earlier in article]

Another physician expressed serious concern about the future of a society which desperately tries to rid itself of all discomforts.  “What are the implications over the long haul for a child with a mild imperfection which doesn’t tolerate any imperfection?” Dr. Robert E. Cooke, pediatrician-in-chief at John Hopkins Hospital, asks.  And he goes on:  “If you decide not to feed the abnormal child, where do you stop?  How ‘abnormal’ should an individual be before you knock him off?”

[and near the end of the article]

The touchiness in the medical literature regarding euthanasia is akin to the silence a decade ago on abortion.  “Over a drink I could tell you that I would like to see laws allowing active euthanasia,” said one department head, “but for publication I can’t.”

Ironically, one of the most eloquent opponents of laws allowing active euthanasia in infants is the physician who admits to having actively killed six deformed infants over the course of his long career.  “The danger of active euthanasia is not to the aged or to the defective child,” this man argues, “but to the person who does it.”

“I will never forget the German neuropathologist who was a guiding star in the field in my student days.  When investigation of Nazi scientific activities began, he was visited by some of his pre-war students who wanted to know how he got such enormous numbers of defective brains to study.  At first he replied that it was ‘not his business’ to know where the brains come from.  But then he was confronted with a letter in which he told attendants at an institution how to inject and kill patients.

“I knew him as a young man.  He couldn’t have done that then.  The change happens slowly.  Many have killed patients once or twice.  But when you make it a regular activity and start making laws, the results can only be bad.  I’ve got to answer for the six I killed before a higher bar of justice, and I would do it again in each case.  But I don’t want any law or anyone telling me I must do this.  The protection of the law is not as valuable to me as being required by another kind of law.”

[Parents and physicians alike think that a review board to handle these cases would be preferred…]

At Hopkins, a review board to advise its medical staff on “ethics” is already in operation.  The board consists of a pediatrician, a surgeon, a psychiatrist, a clergyman and a lawyer.  Even before it started functioning, the board had acquired an underground title:  “The God Committee.”

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