Helen Martin: Morality is lost if life becomes expendable

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IT’S very tempting when you pass the 50 mark, to look back through rose-coloured glasses and conclude that everything was somehow better in the old days (though on balance, I think it probably was).

It’s equally tempting for young people to dismiss doom-laden, middle-aged opinions with phrases such as “the world’s moved on” or “things are different now”. It has, and they are.

But regardless of age, it’s impossible to ignore the bullying selfishness of a society that treats the very old in a pretty abysmal way and regards the very young as completely expendable.

In one day last week, three news stories combined to present the UK as not just having gone mad, but having gone seriously bad. While we concentrate on our superficial financial worries, national debt and dwindling fortunes, we seem to be drifting inexorably towards a moral vacuum that makes the ruthlessness of evolution and the survival of the fittest seem gentle, soppy and out of date.

It emerged that a record number of babies have been placed on the at risk register in Scotland, while they were still in the womb, by local authorities who were concerned that they would be neglected or physically attacked by their own parents once born.

On the same day came the news that two Catholic midwives had lost a legal case against Glasgow and Clyde Health Board’s refusal to recognise their right to conscientious objection on religious grounds, when it came to delegating to, supervising or supporting staff involved in providing terminations. The problem for them came when the majority of terminations were moved to labour wards where they worked trying to deliver healthy babies, rather than elsewhere in the hospital. Some people agree with a woman’s right to abortion, and some people don’t; but most would agree it seems heartless and tasteless in the extreme to have both types of patient in the same ward, albeit convenient for most of the medical staff.

Whether or not there are some people who should face mandatory contraception to prevent them having children they might neglect or attack, and whether or not Catholic midwives should be forced to, even at a distance, have a role in facilitating abortion, are both issues of staggering complexity.

Then up pops Francesca Minerva, a philosopher and medical ethicist doing research at Oxford though she’s based at Melbourne University, who has had an article published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, part of the British Medical Journal group. She argues that doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies if they are disabled, if the mother can’t afford to look after them, or even if her circumstances have changed or she decides she doesn’t want the child.

This, she describes, not as murder or infanticide, but as . . “after-birth abortion”, on the basis that a new-born hasn’t developed hopes, goals and dreams yet and is therefore human, but not a person with a right to life. The interests of those who do have hopes and dreams, including parents, older siblings and even other members of society, should come first. She also rules out adoption because it could cause psychological distress to the mother! There is nothing complex about this. It is quite simply evil and vile.

Some women come to the difficult decision to abort for a number of heart-breaking reasons. But now we have evidence that British doctors are performing abortions on the grounds of mere gender choice. We know that babies are aborted just because they were unplanned and would stretch the family finances, or because caring for a new child would prevent a woman from pursuing her career. All that is bad enough and certainly not within the original spirit of the Abortion Act.

It assumes a child is nothing more than a lifestyle choice or an accessory.

There is no doubt in my mind – others may have a different view – that Dr Minerva makes Cruella De Vil look like the Good Fairy. But I can’t decide whether I think she’s really wicked, seeking notoriety, or if she is one of those academics who is possibly so clever she’s driven herself mad.

What she is proposing, under the “guise” of academia, is cold-blooded murder of infants by medical professionals. Why stop there? None of us can afford the current or future care bills for the elderly; dementia robs people of hopes and dreams too. Using her argument, killer doctors could be the way of the future.

But this is more than the distasteful ramblings of one woman. For the BMJ group published her argument, thereby giving it professional credence, and claimed that doing so was a matter of “academic and intellectual freedom”. Really? Perhaps Harold Shipman should be considered for a posthumous knighthood.