UPDATE: Reader Pyers called my attention to a thoughtful piece by Melanie Phillips that analyzes the Gard case. She argues that the parents’ hopes may have been kept alive by the vociferous, bullying, and life-at-all-costs American Right:
But here’s the really wicked thing about all this. The parents were reinforced in their refusal to accept this tragic situation, and the whole court process pointlessly prolonged, because of the pressure largely emanating from activists and media on the American political right (along with right-to-life campaigners) screaming that a baby was about to be killed by a socialised health care “death panel” enforced by the British government. This campaign led the parents to believe that such pressure could change the court’s mind. And so the parents were reinforced in their refusal to face reality.
. . . I write a great deal about the ideological bullying of the left, the lies published by left-wing media and the inhumanity and irrationality of so much allegedly progressive thinking. But I have never witnessed such concentrated ignorance, arrogance, stupidity and unthinking cruelty as has been displayed by the American political right over the tragic case of Charlie Gard.
The public outrage continues about my post on whether we might consider euthanizing newborn babies with terminal conditions who are suffering horribly. All the articles about it, most of them expressing shock and horror at the notion, have appeared on either right-wing or religious websites, which tells you something. I’ve also received pretty nasty emails and phone calls from people who can’t even bear to consider the idea of putting a suffering, soon-to-be-dead infant out of its misery (see here, and here).
Predictably, my evolutionary biology background is sometimes held responsible, as if my views come from a Darwinian idea that we should help natural selection along, because doing that is good. That criticism, based on the naturalistic fallacy, holds no water, as my views have nothing to do with evolution and everything to do with compassion and philosophy. After all, if I really believed that what evolution does is good and should be promoted, I should have had a passel of children. But I am childless, with the only “Jerry Coynes” being cats.
It’s also clear that the opposition to infant euthanasia is underlain by human exceptionalism: the view that while it’s okay to euthanize terminally ill and suffering adult cats and dogs, who can’t give consent, we can’t do that for suffering and terminally sick infants who also can’t give consent. Much of that exceptionalism comes from religion, but I will grant that some does not. But in what respects are humans qualitatively different from dogs, cats, and other primates? Well, we alone know that we’re going to die, and we also have an idea of futurity, so we look forward to the rest of our lives (well, most of us do). But those aren’t characteristics of newborns, so to me they don’t count as reasons why we need to keep a dying child alive but can euthanize a dying dog. And many human infants share with both adult and infant animals the ability to suffer, but adult animals often exceed newborns in their degree of rationality and sentience. So what makes humans different from other animals are not qualities present in newborns; these “exceptional” qualities appear later in development.
I’ll also grant that not all opposition to euthanasia of infants comes from religion: some comes from the disabled who put themselves in the place of an infant about to be euthanized. The other day I got an outraged call, for instance, from a woman with spina bifida, who accused me of wanting to have her “snuffed out.” But there are degrees of that impairment, and it’s not at all clear that such infants would always be put to death by parents, or that rational guidelines for euthanasia wouldn’t deem such infants as candidates for adoption. Further, one has to consider that those severely disabled people who are now grown up and can consider their situation wouldn’t even be in that position had they been given euthanasia as newborns. This is not an argument for euthanizing every sick or deformed infant, of course, but one has to take the parent’s willingness and ability to give care—often lifelong—to children with severe illness.
At any rate, all I’m proposing is that we should think about this issue, and suggest that it would be merciful in some cases to put terminally ill or severely deformed infants to death rather than allowing them to suffer. I see no point in allowing such suffering to continue when there is no point to it, and when the child is certain or almost certain to die soon.
The case of Charlie Gard in England, which Heather Hastie just discussed on her website, is one example. The infant, born in England about a year ago, began showing signs of illness, and it was discovered that he had a severe form of “encephalomyopathy mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome” (MDDS), a genetic disease which causes progressive muscle weakness and brain damage. It’s nearly always terminal, and in Charlie’s case it was certainly terminal. The infant was soon on both a respirator and feeding tube, and had brain damage exacerbated by seizures. His medical team, and then the courts, decided that Charlie should have only palliative care and that there was no hope for his survival.
An American doctor said he had an experimental treatment that might improve Charlie’s condition (see Heather’s post for more information), but it turned out that he didn’t, and the British courts didn’t permit the infant to be moved to the U.S. for this treatment. They further ruled that Charlie, who was by now deaf and had failing kidneys as well as an inability to breathe on his own, should be moved to a hospice-like facility and the ventilator withdrawn. That happened on July 27, and the next day Charlie died.
Note here that British courts ruled that a suffering and terminally ill child should be put out of his suffering by withdrawing breathing assistance. That is a decision to take action that has a predictable consequence: Charlie’s death. What is the moral difference between doing that and putting Charlie to death earlier with an injection? That’s illegal in Britain, but should it be?
Of course, Charlie’s parents wanted to keep him alive, and those wishes should be heavily weighed in such cases, but in the end the courts and medical team overruled the parents’ initial wishes, something I don’t think is legal in America. At any rate, had the parents wished Charlie to be euthanized once his terminal condition was known, I can’t see a rational objection to that which at the same time allows withdrawing respiratory aid.
As Heather points out, Charlie’s parents eventually agreed that withdrawing life support was the right thing to do, but they were opposed by many Christians, including the Vatican. There were even death threats and abusive letters sent to the Great Ormond Street Hospital where Charlie was being treated.
This shows the degree of emotion that such cases arouse, and the resistance to withdrawing life support in even terminal cases. The resistance is even greater if one considers the possibility of euthanasia for a child like Charlie. I think it would have been more merciful for Charlie’s parents to at least have had that possibility. Suppose he had lingered for a day or two after respiration was withdrawn, gasping and fighting for breath before he died? How is that preferable to an injection that peacefully ends his life?
Well, the stories continue to accumulate explicitly or implicitly attacking my suggestion that euthanasia might be the most merciful choice in such cases. Here are a few articles, with excerpts below them (click on screenshots to go to article):
“Does Coyne really believe that we should treat humans like dogs and cats?” Dr. Richard Weikart, a professor at California State University and author of “Hitler’s Religion: The Twisted Beliefs That Drove the Third Reich,” wrote in a column for Evolution News.
“Ultimately, Coyne doesn’t think humans are any different from other animals, and this justifies euthanasia,” National Review columnist Jeff Cimmino wrote.
“Unfortunately, Coyne has a platform to teach students at a respectable university. One can only hope that his students see through and reject his misguided, poorly constructed arguments.”
I don’t even have a platform to teach students: I’m retired and am not allowed to teach any longer. You’d think Newsmax would at least check on this. And of course I’ve never even broached this topic in my introductory evolution course or any graduate or undergraduate course I’ve taught.
Comparison to Hitler’s program are rife, but there is not a chance in the world that any Western country would permit the kind of euthanasia that happened even at the beginning of the Reich’s extermination program. (No relatives, for example, were even asked, and were often lied to about what happened.)
Surprisingly, the Daily Caller‘s piece is straightforward reporting with no implicit editorializing:
Coyne cites Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer and argues that such newborns’ lives should be terminated not only with the withdrawal of care, but also via injection, provided the doctors and parents’ consent.
“After all, we euthanize our dogs and cats when to prolong their lives would be torture, so why not extend that to humans?” reasons the professor. “Dogs and cats, like newborns, can’t make such a decision, and so their caregivers take the responsibility.”
Coyne believes that religion distinguishes between humans, cats and dogs, deeming the former group “special.” He believes that “when religion vanishes, as it will, so will much of the opposition to both adult and newborn euthanasia.”
The Daily Caller News Foundation reached out to Coyne and the University of Chicago for comment, but received none in time for publication.
In contrast, the Right-wing National Review was outraged:
The evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne, writes a blog entitled, “Why Evolution is True.” One would think that by choosing that title, Coyne should restrict his discussions to questions of science that touch on questions and explanations about how and why life changes over time. But Coyne — as many Darwinists do — takes the question beyond science, and extrapolates evolutionary theory into questions of morality, philosophy, and ethics. And now, he is promoting the propriety of infanticide. [JAC: I said NOTHING about evolution, and my views don’t derive from evolution at all.]
. . . Coyne’s odious advocacy is the logical outcome of accepting the following premises: That human life does not have unique value simply and merely because it is human, and; That eliminating suffering is the overriding purpose of society — allowing the elimination of the sufferer. Many scientists bemoan the fact that so many people refuse to accept evolution as a fact. Without getting into that controversy, perhaps they would be better off ruing the fact that ever since Darwin published The Origin of Species, so many of the promoters of that view also couple it with anti-humanism and a moral philosophy that was judged a crime against humanity at Nuremberg.
There’s the Nazi comparison again, as well as a gross distortion of my views. And note that this magazine, which I thought was respectable, avers that whether evolution is true is a “controversy.” Note to National Review: are you really going to argue that there’s some doubt about whether evolution happened? I wouldn’t dig my trench there were I you!
More excoriation came from the site of Milo Yiannopoulos, a man whose right to speak I’ve defended several times. And I defend his right to criticize me, even using a misguided and kneejerk rejection of euthanasia. The piece doesn’t say much, but does include some feedback from Twitter. I’ve included a few tweets.
I want to ask these people again: if you had an infant who was suffering with a terminal condition, and might live with that suffering for days or even months, and that death after suffering was almost certainly the outcome, why would you prefer it to suffer instead of ending its life swiftly and painlessly? What is the point?
And, of course, many of these sites, as well as their readers, didn’t even consider the nuances and qualifications I discussed about the idea of infant euthanasia. Their attitude was this: