Bioethics Expert Advocates Killing Disabled Babies
LONDON — A senior medical ethics adviser to the British government, the European Union and the United Nations has claimed the killing of newborn disabled babies is morally acceptable.
Professor John Harris, a member of the British Medical Association's ethics committee and a professor of bioethics at the University of Manchester, made his controversial comments during a recent House of Commons science and technology committee debate on reproductive technology.
“I don't think infanticide is always unjustifiable,” said Harris, who also serves on the U.K. Human Genetics Commission and is a co-founder of the International Association of Bioethics. “I don't think it is plausible to think there is any moral change that occurs during the journey down the birth canal. I don't think anything has happened during that time.”
“It is well known that where a serious abnormality is not picked up, when you get a very seriously handicapped — or indeed, a very premature newborn that suffers brain damage — that what effectively happens is that steps are taken not to sustain it on life support,” Harris added.
He went on to claim that infanticide is accepted and widespread in most countries. However, he did not specify to what age he believed infanticide should be permissible.
But when contacted by the Register, Harris denied advocating infanticide.
“Just to make it absolutely clear, because there has been so much mendacious reporting of my position, I do not advocate infanticide,” he said. “I do not propose any change in the law on infanticide. I have never proposed a right to kill the deformed nor do I think there is any justification for so doing.”
Harris is a highly respected figure who frequently appears on radio and television both in the United Kingdom and overseas to discuss biomedical ethics and related issues. He has acted as ethical consultant to national and international bodies and corporations including the European Parliament, the World Health Organization, the European Commission and the joint U.N. program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
“Professor Harris is quite right in some of what he says: There is no difference in moral status between an unborn child and a newly born one,” said Nuala Scarisbrick, trustee of Life, the leading pro-life charity in the United Kingdom. “That is what every pro-lifer knows and has been saying all the time.”
But, Scarisbrick continued, “we pro-lifers conclude that abortion is as wrong as infanticide. He concludes that infanticide is as permissible as abortion. That is where he goes wrong. Predictably, stung by Professor Harris, the pro-abortion-ists are raking up all the tired old arguments about children in the womb being merely dependent beings and suddenly and mysteriously becoming real moral persons at birth.”
“This is ridiculous on two counts,” Scarisbrick said. “First, if dependence is the same as disposability, it would be permissible to kill up to at least 5 or 6 years after birth. And since, in a profound sense, we are all dependent, none of us would be safe.
“But [pro-abortionists] say the child in the womb is dependent on one person, the mother. That, they claim, makes the difference. It does not. The dependence of the unborn child gives the mother power, not rights, over that fellow human being — choosing to have that child killed is objectively abuse of power and dereliction of duty.”
Bishop Ambrose Griffiths of Hexham and Newcastle stressed that all life is a gift from God and is precious.
“The Church never supports any kind of infanticide,” Bishop Griffiths said. “The Church says we must always preserve life from the first moment of conception. If a child is born prematurely in some countries where there is a lot of poverty and poor health care, then it might die because of the conditions there. In Britain, children who are born prematurely can be supported because we have the means to do it.”
“Very many handicapped children are some of the happiest you could meet,” Bishop Griffiths added. “And, despite the strains, they bring a great deal of happiness to their families. To suggest that children who are born handicapped are a burden to society and don't deserve to live is outrageous.”
Rev. Joanna Jepson, a Church of England curate who was born with a cleft palate and who is going to Britain's High Court to try to block late abortions for “trivial reasons,” expressed alarm at Harris' comments.
Jepson launched her court case after learning of a case where British police decided not to press charges in connection with a late-term abortion of an unborn child with a cleft lip and palate. The abortion occurred after the normal 24-week time limit permitted under British law, which allows abortions after that period only when there is a likelihood of the baby being born with a “severe abnormality.”
“It is frightening to hear anyone endorsing infanticide, but it is shocking when the person is responsible for teaching others,” Jepson said. “This affirms the need for an investigation into the practice of abortion.”
In his remarks at a symposium on Down syndrome in 1989, Pope John Paul II said: “[T]he increasing use of selective abortion as a means of preventing the birth of handicapped children requires a firm response from Christians. In our search for genuine social progress, we can never ignore the law or God….
The Gospel affirms that every individual is a creature whom God chose to fashion in his own image, and both Christian revelation and reason affirm the a existence of a moral order which transcends man himself.”
Lara Brooks, a mother from London whose 6-year-old son was born with Down syndrome, was equally shocked.
“I find it astonishing that such a leading medical figure should put forward such an argument,” she said. “It's very worrying and disturbing when you hear this kind of thing. If his views were accepted, then my son would not have been born.”
Greg Watts writes from London.
- March 14-18, 2004