The Value of a Human Life

The news that doctors in the Netherlands are killing babies under the government's liberal euthanasia law has caused something of a stir on talk radio and on the internet. I am still gathering my thoughts and would like to know more about the cases involved and the direction the Netherlands is heading, but I wanted to get articulate some of my considerations to date.

The Value of a Short Life and the Confidence of Diagnosis

The logic behind the actions is clear. Even understandable. The goal is to prevent suffering. After all, it is only babies who will die anyway that are being killed. Of course we all die, but these babies are not supposed to live for any significant amount of time.

But what is a significant amount of time? And how accurate are these prognosis? I have personally known -- and have heard of other -- families who were expecting the joy of a new and healthy baby only to be told that their baby was deformed or facing such insurmountable health obstacles that he or she had little time to live. And that time, they were told, would be subject to much suffering and little productivity. But the babies in these families lived on for a while, 1, 2, or 3 years. Although there was much suffering, there was love as well. And something else. Those families who stood with and fought for their children, are the closest families I have ever met. The mother, father, and surviving siblings are some of the finest people with the strongest sense of family and values that I have known. The reports I have heard about other families who faced similar things are the same.

So there are two points. First, the diagnosis given may very well underestimate the length and quality of the life of the baby. This is no hypothetical, but a reality in many situations. Second, even a short time of life has benefit. A child will receive 1, 2, or 3 years of love. The family will give 1, 2, or 3 years of love. Often the child will reciprocate that love. Plus, I think there is value to families and people facing the hardship that comes into their lives. Facing it and coping with it and, eventually, growing because of it. Again, this is not merely hypothetical, but a reality I have seen.

But what if the baby lives only 6 months? Or 3 months? That is still time for love, for placing another above ones' self, of learning and growing through hardship. And it more than the child would have if killed earlier. But the point remains that we do not always know, and will sometimes be mistaken, about the length and quality of an unhealthy babies' life. Do we err on the side of death or the side of life?

Who Makes the Call? And on What Basis?

Another problem is, who is making the decisions? Apparently, the Netherlands is considering a scheme to let a quasi-governmental panel determine who should die -- when the subject himself or herself has no "free will." This is highly problematic, especially in a country -- like the Netherlands -- that has such strong government involvement and funding of the health care industry. Even if the family is included, the temptation to put the problem -- and the hardship -- quickly behind them will be powerful. As will the prospect of medical bills, time of from work, or caring for an impaired or unhealthy child. So no matter who makes the call, it is very likely that the cost and hardship of caring for the baby will be a factor in deciding whether to kill him or her. And the weight given to that factor will not be defined, but left to the subjective conditions and predispositions of various decision makers.

The Inherint Value of the Human Being

The entire affair reminds me of a hypothetical we were asked in law school. It may actually have been based on a real case, but I cannot remember. Suppose you shoot a person to death through a window who is falling to their end from the top of a 100 story building? Let's say you are on the 15th floor. The person was going to die anyway. His death is quite imminent and assured. You are actually shortening the time they will be suffering while falling.

The answer is that, according to the law at least, it is still murder. You acted with intent. Your actions caused the person to die. That the person had only 10 more seconds to live is no excuse.

The point of the hypothetical is that the killing of another human being is intrinsically evil. It does not matter what condition the person is in, it does not matter if you "only" robbed that person of 10 more seconds of life, it does not matter that you may have even been motivated by the desire to end his suffering, the killing of a human being even in such circumstances is wrong because human beings are intrinsically of great worth. It does not matter how happy or depressed we may be. How much money we make. Whether we are making a difference in life or just passing through. All human life is valuable simply because it is human life.

Yes, Quality of Life Matters

All this being said, I am not dismissing out of hand the concern over "quality of life"--especially when it is in the context of great physical suffering with little hope of survival. Which is why I am more sympathetic to the practice of ceasing extraordinary intervention or providing medication that may hasten death. But we have moved beyond that in the Netherlands. They are not simply overmedicating with pain killers. They are injecting lethal doses of sedatives for the express purpose of killing human babies.

The Value of a Bright Line

I usually am not one for "slippery slope" arguments. But sometimes there is great value to what we called "the bright line" in law school. Basically, this means that you make the best call you can -- recognizing that there are grey areas -- but make a firm, objective rule that will bind everyone despite the greay areas. For example, why a driving age of 16? I have met 20 year olds who lack the maturity to be driving. I have also met 14 year olds who have such maturity and could easily pass the test. But it is simply impossible to gauge accurately everyone's maturity level. We have some idea, we have some statistics. But we are excluding some potentially good drivers from the roads. So we base the 16 year limit on those, all the while knowing there are close calls.

I'll try and think of some better examples as work slows down, but this should suffice for now.

When it comes to killing babies, a bright line is especially appropriate given the great value of human life, the possibility of diagnosis that turn out to be incorrect, the danger of placing financial considerations over the value of human life, and the value of even a short life. Yes, there are going to be extreme cases. Especially in hindsight. But which side of the equation do we give the benefit of the doubt? The one that favors life? Or the one that favors death?

When it comes to innocent human life, I think we should err on the side of life.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt has some more details about how this works in the Netherlands. The protocols can cover any child up to age 12. The parents do not have the final say. Indeed, it appears that their decisions are not even entitled to deference.


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