Imagine receiving the devastating diagnosis of a terminal illness and just while you were allowing the news to sink in, a doctor suggested that one option might be to eschew palliative care and opt for a heavy dose of anaesthesia in order that some of your organs might be able to be transplanted to another person in need of them.
We might like to believe that such a dystopian nightmare would never come to pass in our civilised society and yet a similarly chilling proposal was unveiled at an NHS conference last week, only the terminally ill donors would not be adults, but disabled babies.
In an unbelievably ghoulish statement, a leading transplant surgeon, Niaz Ahmad of St James’ University Hospital in Leeds, noted that a number of staff in the NHS were not aware that babies’ organs can be used. They need to be aware, he said, that these can be transplanted, they work and they work long-term. Furthermore, he said that the NHS are looking to roll out the harvesting of babies’ organs as a viable source of transplantation nationally.
The idea sent chills down the spines of parents everywhere and yet still some people attempted to defend the proposed practice, stating that the story had been reported sensationally; women weighing up the decision on whether or not to abort, would not be prompted to think about organ donation following a diagnoses of foetal abnormality and neither would anyone be compelled to donate their baby’s organs.
Which sounds fine in theory. However, Mr Ahmad stressed that there was a real potential for using the organs of disabled babies and that women needed to be informed of the option of organ donation. Furthermore an NHS Blood and Transplant committee has been set up tasked with boosting donation from newborns and very young babies, and an NHS lead nurse has been appointed to educate NHS staff about talking to parents about taking this step.
So it sounds very much like the idea has official endorsement and, as any expectant mother will tell you, while ante-natal screening is allegedly optional, in practice most women are coerced or strongly pressurised into participating. I vociferously declined the screening that could determine whether or not my son had Downs Syndrome in my last pregnancy and yet still my wishes were ignored. Seeing that I had declined the blood test, the sonographer insisted on an extremely detailed check for soft markers which could be an indication of the condition, making me wish that I’d never attended the screening at all. Ante-natal screening ought to be about advancing foetal medicine and attempting to treat any potential serious conditions either in utero, or being well-prepared to deal with any post-birth complications, and yet it has turned into a default filtering out of the disabled. Well over 90 per cent of babies diagnosed with Downs Syndrome are aborted every year and the number of babies aborted thanks to disabilities has increased by a staggering 34 per cent since 2011.
If the NHS is making plans to incorporate donation of a baby’s organs into an official NHS response to the extent of training staff with the stated goal of increasing donation numbers, then it’s fairly obvious that women will be strongly urged to consider it. While most of us will instinctively recoil at the plan and therefore think that nothing so horrific will ever come to pass, because it will be quashed by the weight of public opinion, it’s also worth remembering that many advocates of the 1967 Abortion Act believed the same thing about abortion on demand. This, they said, would only affect a minority of women in a handful of hard cases. The same with measures about euthanasia, which in Belgium is now being used to end the lives of people who are suffering from a minor bout of depression, including one woman who felt that she could no longer go on after her boyfriend dumped her.
Like euthanasia and abortion, the idea will gain traction because it is based in compassion and has an altruistic goal, which is why we ought to be on our guard, ready to mount a swift grassroots political response.
There is nothing wrong with a bereaved parent generously deciding to donate the organs of a deceased or stillborn baby, if they feel moved to do so but there is a world of difference between an offer made out of spontaneous free will and motivated by generosity and one which is has been coerced by the public health system. How many women will be made to feel guilty by societal pressure if they don’t make the ‘right decision’ when faced with the diagnosis of foetal abnormality?
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not arguing that abortion ought to be the norm in these circumstances, or that women ought to be allowed to chose to end the lives of disabled babies, far from it. These proposals contain a similar ethic to abortion in that both dehumanise babies, who are among the most vulnerable in our society. What message are we giving if we say that disabled children are only fit to become organ donors for other, ‘more worthy’ adults? We don’t treat terminally ill adults as commodities from whom we may harvest organs – babies deserve exactly the same care and respect.
This suggestion reduces a baby to nothing more than a carcass; it’s the physical manifestation of treating a human being as nothing more than a means to an end. Parents of disabled children are already faced with so much pressure to abort the pregnancy, when the focus ought to be upon allowing the baby to be delivered and then treated with all the compassion and care as any other terminally or gravely ill person, which not only accords the baby with the humanity that they deserve but also assists the parents in terms of any later grieving process.
There is also the issue that most parents could not bear to subject a baby to the business of transplantation, most struggle enough when their baby requires a post-mortem and understandably so. The whole thing is unbearable, especially as it has been proposed that such babies be kept in care on a ventilator to keep their organs fresh, until such time as they can be used, which begs many questions. What happens if having agreed to bear a baby for the purposes of organ donation, which really does turn women into little more than incubators, the parents change their mind post-birth. What if treatable conditions are overlooked, or a bad prognosis is overstated in order to keep up the flow of useable organs?
It all puts one in mind of the gory surrealism of Monty Python’s live liver transplant sketch in which a middle-aged housewife is persuaded by a slick-talking mobile transportation unit to donate her liver while she’s still alive. That was supposed to be satire, illuminating the danger of treating people as utilitarian objects, insignificant and worthless objects in a vast and expanding universe who can be used as a means to an end. Never once, as I used to hide my eyes from the gory scenes, did I ever imagine that this might become a reality, where disabled babies are treated as fresh slabs of meat, ready to be dissected for others. If this idea does becomes mainstream NHS practice, then where will it stop? Which other categories of people could be deemed more useful as donors than as live human beings?