Doctors Speed Death of ill Babies

This shocking headline comes from the April 8, 2005 United Press International, but was also reported by Reuters news service and Medical News Today. The basis of this headline is a survey of doctors in Belgium recently published in the The Lancet medical journal, that showed that when faced with a critically ill baby, three out of four doctors polled would be willing to take action that they knew could result in the child’s death. The article goes further to reveal that some had already done so.

Professor Luc Deliens (Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Belgium) and colleagues looked at the death certificates for all neonates and infants in the whole of Flanders (a province in Belgium) who died between August 1999 and July 2000. Researchers looked at 292 children that were born alive and died in Flanders within the first year of life over the period of the study. They identified 175 doctors who were in charge of these cases and sent them anonymous questionnaires. Of all that were sent the questionnaire, 121 of the 175 doctors involved completed the questions. The study revealed that in 143 cases, or 57 percent, an end-of-life decision had been taken. These decisions involved either withholding treatment, giving drugs to alleviate pain in doses that could shorten the life of the child or administering a lethal dose of a treatment.

Professor Deliens concluded: “We found that about three in four physicians who are confronted with critically ill neonates and infants are willing to participate in certain forms of life termination in these children. The main reasons for shortening of the neonate’s life were the absence of real survival chances, and, if the baby survived, an expected very poor quality of life.” Professor Yvan Vandenplas, also of Vrije University Brussels commented by saying, “When there is no chance of a positive outcome then many pediatricians take an end-of-life decision.”

Although in Belgium the use of lethal drugs in minors is illegal, the study revealed that lethal doses or lethal drugs were administered in 17 cases representing about 9%. The study also showed that 95 (or 79%) of the 121 doctors thought that their professional duty sometimes included the prevention of unnecessary suffering by hastening death and 69 (58%) of 120 doctors said they would support legalization of termination in some cases.