Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott says decisions about whether to keep sick premature babies alive should not be “forced on” families by governments.
He said discussions about whether to treat premature babies who were unlikely to survive, or were likely to be seriously disabled, were already happening between clinicians and families.
But he said a potential overlap in the period in which late-term abortions occurred and very premature babies were born, “raised very serious ethical questions” that were important in the debate.
The matter of the overlap, in which a baby could be aborted at 23 weeks’ gestation while a premature baby born at 24 weeks could be saved, was first raised last year by his parliamentary secretary, Christopher Pyne.
“There is a real issue when you’ve got one part of the hospital desperately trying to save these kids and the other part of the hospital terminating them,” Mr Abbott said.
He said the issue would not be resolved by letting sick babies die in neonatal intensive care units.
“I don’t think we resolve this dilemma by not intervening to try to save premature babies,” he said.
Mr Abbott’s state counterpart, Bronwyn Pike, said this week there needed to be public debate about whether the most premature babies who faced poor futures should be allowed to die.
Ms Pike’s comments came as doctors and nurses in Britain this week are debating whether there should be a point at which babies are no longer treated.
In Holland, intensive care is not routinely administered to babies born before 25 weeks’ gestation.
Research shows that one in five premature babies will have a serious disability, compared with one in 25 babies born at full-term or about 40 weeks.
“If we were turning off life-support systems for budgetary reasons, and not because they’re the decisions that families have made, I think that would be very, very sad,” Mr Abbott said.
“These things are always being debated.
“Every human being at some stage of his or her life thinks things like, ‘If I’m very old and very sick and have some kind of a health episode, how heroic do I want the efforts to revive me to be?’ I think most people from time to time think about these things.”
Leanne Uwland, president of Austprem, a support group for premature babies’ parents, said the decision to end a baby’s life should be one made on a “baby-to-baby basis”.
“I don’t believe in drawing a line in the sand and saying for anyone who’s younger than this gestation, ‘I’m sorry but we’re not helping them’,” Ms Uwland said.
“You can’t judge at birth what a baby’s outcome is going to be.”
She said the issue also raised the debate about the ethical right to decide what a life is.
Article from The Age