Doctors in Oregon Concerned About Newborn Euthanasia in the Netherlands

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 6, 2004   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Doctors in Oregon Concerned About Newborn Euthanasia in the Netherlands Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
December 6, 2004

Portland, OR ( — Doctors in Oregon, the only state in the United States that has legalized assisted suicide, are concerned about news from the Netherlands indicating a hospital there is euthanizing newborn babies.

Dr. Mark Merkens, director of the spina bifida program at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, says he is concerned about the implications of a policy at a hospital in the Netherlands that provides guidelines for when doctors can end the lives of severely disabled newborns they think have no chance at life.

Merkens told the Oregonian newspaper that he had a case where he thought a baby with severe spina bifida had little or no hope.

"I discussed the case with an experienced colleague," he told the Portland newspaper, "and he made a minor point about the anatomy of the brain and the accuracy of our projection. We provided the lifesaving surgery."

Now, the baby is a teenager who attends public school and has normal mental abilities.

Merkens told the Oregonian that he is worried the Netherlands hospital is killing newborns who would otherwise have survived had they been given a the chance.

"We must be humble about our ability to project . . . outcomes," he said.

Last week, Groningen Academic Hospital announced it has created guidelines for doctors there to euthanize newborns who are suffering from pain associated with incurable diseases or extreme physical deformities.
Known as the Groningen Protocol, and announced last month, it allows euthanasia when a baby’s medical team and independent doctors agree there is no prospect for improving pain.

The child’s parents also must agree to the request to end the child’s life.

Dr. Linda Wallen, director of Doernbecher’s neonatal intensive care unit, treats hundreds of the sickest newborns every year, of whom only about 30 die.

Some of Wallen’s patients include babies born without kidneys, premature infants with severely underdeveloped lungs, and others without brain function.

Wallen told the Oregonian that she thinks the euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands are more for the family than to end the suffering of a baby will no chance to live.

"I think we do a good job of providing good pain control and making babies comfortable," she said. "My initial reaction is that euthanasia is for the family’s comfort, not the baby’s."

Wallen said doctors in her unit will confer with other physicians and the family. If nothing more can be done for the baby, caregivers will continue to provide comfort and pain medication to the child until the baby dies naturally.