What did Udo Schuklenk really say about neonatal euthanasia?

Xavier Symons
20 Dec 2014
Reproduced with Permission

Bioethicist Udo Schuklenk has come under fire following the publication of a conference paper in which he advocated neonatal euthanasia in certain extreme circumstances. A number of commentators have attacked Schuklenk for his 'dangerous' remarks and 'eugenic ideology'. Schuklenk has hit back , arguing that one particular critic misrepresented his argument, and, to quote, "made stuff up".

So, what did Dr. Schuklenk actually write? I'll just try to state the facts.

The paper, entitled 'Physicians can justifiably euthanize certain severely impaired neonates', was originally read at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery. The stimulus for the article was real life case of a baby suffering from severe heterotaxy syndrome - a condition in which the heart or other organs are misarranged in the body. The association were seeking insight on whether it would be permissible in such cases to euthanise a baby. Shucklenk responded:

"There appear to be some cases, then, where continuing existence is not in a severely impaired neonate's best interest. Terminating its life, based on parent choice, seems a prima facie reasonable option."

Schuklenk has gone to pains to point out that he didn't write 'severe deformities', but rather 'severely impaired'. Schuklenk goes on to consider various arguments for and against this procedure. He argues that there is a good case to allow parents of the neonate to go proxy for him or her.

He also criticises the notion of human dignity as question begging.

"[Such claims] are question-begging; they typically assume the truth of what they need to demonstrate. Human dignity has no clear, universally agreed-upon meaning. A quality-of-life proponent could just as well argue that respect for human dignity demands that the infant's life be terminated on compassionate grounds."

He considers terminal sedation as an alternative to euthanising the 'severely impaired' child; in the end, he argues that parental distress and the unnecessary drain on health care resources make euthanasia an acceptable option.

"Health care resources ought to be deployed where they can actually benefit patients by improving their quality of life. This cannot be achieved in the scenario under consideration."

For those of you who can't access the article itself, the above will hopefully serve as a useful summary. I'll leave it up to commenters to editorialize.