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This doctor is proud to have killed four newborns - by Damien McElroy

This doctor is proud to have killed four newborns

By Damien McElroy


The Dutch doctor spoke animatedly in his hospital office as he explained why he had agreed to break the law and kill a seriously deformed baby.

"There is a small group of children for whom no treatment is possible for the congenital disease and malformations they are born with," said Eduard Verhagen, the head of paediatrics at Groningen Hospital in the Netherlands. "Asking doctors to take away the pain easily and allow the child to die quietly is the natural reaction.

"For the incurable to die early requires that we do this or they enter a starvation phase and what suffering is more unbearable than a minor left to die from natural causes such as these."

Dr Verhagen's actions have already provoked condemnation from the Vatican and others who argue that the right-to-life must remain inviolable.

Other Dutch doctors side with Dr Verhagen, however, and in the past four years have sought to challenge this by reporting 18 such cases of "neo-natal" deaths to the national prosecutor's office in the Hague.

They claim that many more such killings have been carried out secretly for years, with the consent of parents, but say that they now want the issue brought into the open in the hope of securing a change in the law that would allow euthanasia, already legal in Holland above the age of 12, to be carried out on newborn infants as well.

Dr Verhagen himself has reported four such terminations in the last 16 months. The city prosecutors' office has refused to take any action in each case.

"It makes you shiver to see babies suffer such enormous pain caused by their deformities, especially when you know that life expectancy is extremely low.

"Right now in all countries doctors are forced to find a solution behind the curtain.

"We want to shine a spotlight on this, to have clear rules so that no doctor is left facing a murder charge."

Dr Verhagen said that officials from the Dutch Ministry of Justice had told him last week that a new protocol, protecting doctors in such cases, would be endorsed by legislation next month.

The protocol sets out five conditions for ending infant life, one of which is that parents must give consent. So long as the protocol's provisions are followed, a doctor would no longer face the risk of a murder charge.

Dr Verhagen illustrates the dilemma faced by doctors and parents by citing the case of Baby B, a child born with its spinal cord exposed through an open chest, a tiny slice of functioning brain tissue and an enlarged spina bifada.

To survive a year the infant's Dutch doctors believed that 40 operations would be necessary. Prolonging the child's existence in the medium term would, said Dr Verhagen, have been a pyrrhic achievement. The infant would still have been profoundly deaf, unable to move, talk or breathe without assistance.

Survival beyond more than a few years in one of Europe's most advanced hospitals was judged unlikely. Baby B's parents were unwilling to allow the child to live in such conditions.

Under Dutch law, doctors could have suspended the life-giving treatment that was keeping Baby B alive. She would then have starved to death.

Dr Verhagen's paediatrics department offered an alternative, but illegal, option: euthanasia. Administering a poison quickly and painlessly killed the infant. It was, claimed Dr Verhagen, the only humane option.

"We know that doctors all over Europe face the same problem but do not talk about it. In France it's almost as open as here but in Italy it is so closed no one will ever talk about it," he added.

"We want what is acceptable and unacceptable to be in the open. That it should be brought forward like this fits into the structure of Dutch society and the legal system. We deal with these problems that every country shares."

Dr Verhagen and his colleagues estimate that between 10 and 15 "mercy killings" are carried out on infants each year in the Netherlands. T

he practice was given tacit official sanction in 1997 when a court refused to sentence a doctor involved in one such case, but only Dr Verhagen and doctors at a clinic in Utrecht have tested this by reporting deaths to the authorities.

Support for the infant killings is far from uniform, however. Wim Eijk, the Roman Catholic bishop in Groningen, is one of its foremost opponents, arguing that the state can have no right to authorise doctors to end the life of infants, who, by definition, are incapable of giving consent to their own deaths.

"This is a Darwinian nightmare and a grave violation of the laws of God," said a spokesman for the bishop last week. "It is crossing a boundary thus far prohibited in every code. Euthanasia for children in circumstances where it is not possible to seek or secure the consent of those affected. It is a slippery slope that will give doctors the right to impose life or death, and will lead to an argument that it should be extended to all."

The Vatican has also condemned the Dutch doctors as little better than the Nazi medics who routinely killed newborns with any defect, pursuing Hitler's dream of constructing a master race.

Dr Verhagen responds by insisting that the theologians have not seen the suffering he has witnessed, and points out that one of the new law's most prominent advocates is a couple whose child was born with a rare bladder disease that raised the toxicity of the skin to such level that painful blisters were created with each touch. "Our child could not eat and could not be held," the child's mother said. "It was cruel not intervene to end its suffering."

Since the law was changed in 2002 to permit euthanasia, it now accounts for about 4,000-5,000 deaths a year, about 3.5 per cent of the annual number of deaths in the Netherlands.

Bert Dorenbos, a spokesman for Cry-for-Life, a Dutch pressure group, said that he feared that this total would rise significantly if the threat of prosecution was removed from doctors, who would exploit the changes to kill handicapped infants. Any change to the law should, he insisted, be resisted.

"This is the product of lobbying by doctors who feel they should be free to do what they want to do," he said. "If the condition of handicapped-born babies is really incurable, it should not be necessary to kill them but to treat them humanely until their passing. There will be more children who will die because of these changes."

12 October 2003: Named: the baby boy who was Nazis' first euthanasia victim

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