Last week the British Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report including step-by-step recommendations regarding the proper care of premature infants. The Council recommended that infants born earlier than 22 weeks of gestation not be resuscitated and that infants between 22 and 23 weeks of gestation only receive intensive care if their parents request such care and the infant’s doctors agree.
There has been a flurry of commentaries in U.S. papers and blogs about the Nuffield Council’s recommendations, but not a single one that I have seen mentions the fact that in the U.S., it would be illegal to follow the Council’s recommendations. In 2002 President Bush signed into law the federal Born-Alive Infant Protection Act and in 2005 DHHS Secretary Mike Leavitt stated “[w]e aggressively enforce federal laws that protect born-alive infants. We issued clear guidance that withholding medical care from an infant born alive may constitute a violation of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act and the Medicare Conditions of Participation.”
It is nevertheless worth considering what the Nuffield Council has said to help put the Born-Alive Infant protection Act into perspective. The Council’s report makes it clear that there is no realistic chance that a baby born under 22 weeks of gestation will survive and that infants born between 22 and 23 weeks have only a 1% chance of survival. Furthermore, those few that do survive at 22-23 weeks are highly likely to suffer from severe handicaps. (None of this information is limited to Britain. U.S. statistics confirm these conclusions). The Born-Alive Infant Protection Act requires health care professionals to try to save such babies. They must tape them down, stick them with needles and tubes, and resuscitate them – essentially, they are required to torture such babies until they die. As a mother of four children and a Christian, I would want to hold and rock my little infant as it dies. I wouldn’t want its precious few hours of life to be filled with pain and fear and never a mother’s warm embrace or soft voice. It is a very cruel world indeed if the drafters of the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act knew they were going to require health care professionals to torture dying infants and deny parents the only realistic succor they have to offer – the physical affection that would tell such infants that, while their stay on earth is short, they are nevertheless loved.