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Disabled and critically ill fetuses and premature babies must get the best possible treatment say CMF and LCF

Published: 15th June 2005

The Christian Medical Fellowship and the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship have urged that disabled and critically ill fetuses and premature babies must get the best possible treatment.

These comments come in their submissions to a major consultation on the ethics of prolonging life in fetuses and the newborn being held by the Nuffield Council. The consultation was to close on 9 June, but the deadline for submissions has been extended to 23 June because of recent media coverage and increased public interest.

Peter Saunders, General Secretary of the CMF, stated ‘All human beings are worthy of the utmost respect, empathy, compassionate care and protection from abuse or harm. The mark of a humane society is that it takes special care to look after the most vulnerable – and who is more vulnerable than a fetus and extremely preterm or malformed neonate?’

‘There are untreatable or lethal clinical conditions for which invasive medical technology cannot bring a cure, and where we must focus instead on providing the best palliative care available.  In these circumstances, withholding or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment may be appropriate and ethical. But we need to recognise that the outcome for any individual fetus or neonate depends on a wide range of contingencies and uncertainties which cannot be quantified or predicted with any degree of accuracy. If there is any doubt, babies, unborn or newborn, must be given the benefit of that doubt.’

‘For this reason any guidance on decisions to withhold or withdraw treatment should be advisory rather than binding and based on the best up to date results obtained in centres of excellence rather than being derived from dated epidemiological population-based studies.

Spokesperson and Public Policy Officer for the LCF, Andrea Minichiello Williams, added, “The matters this Working Party considers strike at the heart of a healthy society and what it means to respect one another. When we begin to assess another person’s quality of life or value which historically and in law has always been subject to an overriding sense of sacredness, or otherness, or givenness of life, we are in danger of reducing the value we place on one another to something akin to property rights – society having the right freely to dispose of what it owns from a fetus to a life particularly when the life is deemed of ‘less worth’.”

Williams, added ‘From the point of birth a baby is an individual human being under law, and as such enjoys certain rights.  To refuse to give life sustaining treatment to babies because of their disabilities would fall foul of the requirement to ensure the right to life is respected without discrimination.’

She continued, ‘Sadly the English Courts have decided that a fetus does not enjoy a separate legal existence which leaves us with a legal state of affairs that does not reflect most people’s views about the unborn. If you talk to any pregnant woman, or a woman who has suffered a miscarriage, or even a woman who is experiencing regret or depression after having an abortion, it is clear that to them a fetus is not simply an organism in their body, but is or was their baby growing inside them’.

Saunders concluded, ‘We realise that decisons have to be made about resources, but we have a duty to intervene to save life, prevent disability or relieve distressing symptoms in these most vulnerable of patients when it is in our power to do so. The emphasis must be on making the best care more readily accessible. We don’t want a postcode lottery of neonatal care or imposition of guidelines that stop babies getting the best, just because health managers wish to save money .’

The Consultation Paper and how to respond can be found at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics webpage at www.nuffieldbioethics.org. The CMF response is available in full on this site. The LCF response can be found at www.lawcf.org.

For further information:

Philippa Taylor (CMF Head of Public Policy) 020 7234 9664
Steven Fouch (CMF Head of Communications) 020 7234 9668

Media Enquiries:

Alistair Thompson on 07970 162 225

About CMF:

Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) was founded in 1949 and is an interdenominational organisation with over 5,000 doctors, 900medical and nursing students and 300 nurses and midwives as members in all branches of medicine, nursing and midwifery. A registered charity, it is linked to over 100 similar bodies in other countries throughout the world.

CMF exists to unite Christian healthcare professionals to pursue the highest ethical standards in Christian and professional life and to increase faith in Christ and acceptance of his ethical teaching.

Christian Medical Fellowship:
uniting & equipping Christian doctors & nurses
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