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Prolonging neonatal life
The paradox that medicine’s success breeds medicine’s problems is well known to readers of the Journal of Medical Ethics. Advances in neonatal medicine have worked wonders. Not long ago, extremely premature birth babies, or those born with very serious health problems, would inevitably have died. Today, neonatologists can resuscitate babies born at ever-earlier stages of gestation. And very ill babies also benefit from advances in neonatal intensive care. Infant lives can be prolonged. Unfortunately, several such babies will not survive for long whatever is done for them. Others will live to leave hospital, but face severe health problems. Doctors have gained the ability to prolong neonatal life. But should they always do so? This question is central to the recent report of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, Critical care decisions in fetal and neonatal medicine.1 In many quarters, the report received a very positive response, commended in The Lancet as “thoughtful, sensitive and sensible” and welcomed by the premature baby charity BLISS. Critics attacked on both flanks. The report goes too far—ushering in a culture of “throw away babies”. Or it does not go far enough—failing to endorse the Dutch precedent to sanction active neonatal euthanasia.
One of the key recommendations of the report is that guidelines be developed in relation to the institution of intensive neonatal care. It is these guidelines, which have been savaged by some parts of the media. The BMA called them “blanket rules” smothering clinical discretion. The guidelines on resuscitation at birth apply to babies born at the borderline of viability, that is, at or before a gestational age of 25 weeks 6 days. The earlier the baby is born, the lower are the chances that he/she will survive to leave hospital. Before 21 weeks 6 days, none of …