A recent report from the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Critical care decisions in fetal and neonatal medicine: ethical issues, concludes that "there are some circumstances in which imposing or continuing treatments to sustain a newborn baby's life results in a level of irremediable suffering such that there is no ethical obligation to act in order to preserve that life." Accordingly, the Council opines that physicians ethically may withhold or withdraw treatment from such infants. Indeed, while the Council claims not to accept active euthanasia as ethical, it invokes the principle of double effect to justify the use of "potentially life-shortening but pain-relieving treatments."
Given the trends in Western society towards acceptance of abortion and euthanasia, one is no longer surprised when a principally secular ethical body reaches such a conclusion. The attitude of the Church of England came as something of a surprise, however, at least to observers outside the Anglican sphere.
The Daily Mail recently reported that "a bishop representing the national church has now sparked controversy by arguing that there are occasions when it is compassionate to leave a severely disabled child to die. And the Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, who is the vice chair of the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council, has also argued that the high financial cost of keeping desperately ill babies alive should be a factor in life or death decisions." (Bishop Butler's full submission to the Nuffield Council has now been released and is available here.)
In suggesting that some children be left "to die," Bishop Butler broke with 2000-plus years of Judeo-Christian ethics.
It was commonplace in pagan Greek and Roman society for parents to "leave a ... child to die." Although active infanticide was known, apparently passive euthanasia was more common. Parents would simply abandon their children in the outdoors to die of exposure.
Jewish and Christian theology, however, squarely forbade this practice. Numerous early Christian sources, for example, confirm the Didache's teaching that it is a grave sin to "murder a child" or to "kill that which is born."
To be sure, Justin Martyr's Guilt of Exposing Children justified the prohibition in part on grounds that "almost all so exposed (not only the girls, but also the males) are brought up to prostitution." Yet, in a later chapter, Justin makes clear that the possibility abandoned children would be brought up in a life of prostitution was not his sole concern, writing: "And again [we fear to expose children], lest some of them be not picked up, but die, and we become murderers." (Emphasis supplied.)
This tradition remains a core part of the magisterial teaching of the Christian Church. In 1980, for example, the Catholic Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a Declaration on Euthanasia, in which it stated that "Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying."
More recently, Pope John Paul II feared that "the point has been reached where the most basic care, even nourishment, is denied to babies born with serious handicaps or illnesses," which is, of course, precisely what the Nuffield Council and the Church of England contemplate.
On behalf of the Church of England, Bishop Butler justifies his departure from this 2,000 year-old Church tradition on grounds that:
There are many instances in the life of Christ where he overrode rule-based systems. There may be occasions where, for a Christian, compassion will override the 'rule' that life should inevitably be preserved.
Butler's argument is specious. The tradition of opposition to infanticide is not just a "rule." To the contrary, as John Paul proclaimed, "The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus' message."
Although most infants allowed to die per the Nuffield Council's recommendations likely will do so in a hospital setting, there is little ethical difference between allowing a child to expire from denial of nourishment or other forms of care, and allowing a child to die of exposure. Indeed, in both cases, hunger or thirst will be the agent of death.
As Western culture has given increasingly short shrift to the sanctity of life, the Christian Church - whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant - has been a prophetic voice in favor of life. Sadly, as part of its ongoing accommodation to the values of post-Christian secular society, the Church of England has chosen to turn its back on the Gospel of Life.