Have you heard of “The Groningen Protocol?” It may sound like a spy novel or suspense movie about shadowy conspiracies hatched in ivory towers by cadres of cynical utopian thinkers determined to co-opt society’s understanding of what it means to have a life worth living. Think “Soylent Green,” the science fiction movie where social planners faced with overpopulation and food shortages decide to alleviate the problem by encouraging senior citizens to embrace euthanasia. Their remains are then processed into nutritious green squares.
The Groningen Protocol is a set of guidelines specifying when physicians in the Netherlands can end the lives of infants without the fear of legal prosecution.
Before we take a closer look, let me admit to a bias you can factor in as you read on. My ethical antennae go up whenever humans make cool, rational, systematic decisions to end the lives of other humans not able to speak for themselves. I’m not saying I would categorically oppose this without regard to any argument that might be advanced. I’m just saying my default reaction to the idea of killing anyone who can’t speak for themselves is to say: “Stop. You can’t, you mustn’t cross that line. Because, once you embrace that principle — that we ourselves can decide which lives are worth living and which are not — the next step becomes easier.”
Now let’s take a look at that Groningen Protocol. In 2004, Dr. Eduard Verhagen, medical director of the Department of Pediatrics at the University Medical Center in Groningen, Netherlands, after consultation with various doctors and prosecutors, proposed criteria under which physicians could perform active ending of the lives of infants (children under 12). This protocol was ratified by the Dutch National Association of Pediatricians. Here are the guidelines: 1. The presence of hopeless and unbearable suffering; 2. Consent of the parents to the termination of life; 3. In consultation with appropriate medical personnel; and 4. Careful execution of the termination.
According to the statistics I was able to locate, more than 20 children have been killed (I could, of course, choose a softer word, but I’m not inclined to sugarcoat hard facts — they were killed) pursuant to this protocol. Most of them suffered from spina bifida or hydrocephalus. The rationale for this “killing” without the victim’s (yes victim) request or consent is this: The quality of this life is so miserable that the “victim” would, no doubt, approve (if they had mental legal capacity) and tell us so (if they could speak for themselves.) They would, no doubt, request euthanasia if they could. Maybe so. But something inside me quakes when I consider the ramifications of reasoning like this. Imagine someone saying: “Surely these poor orphaned infants would choose death over a life of privation, disease and malnutrition they’ll surely face if left to grow up in the squalor of this Kenyan slum.” Such a statement would rightly be met with outrage.
Conflicting heartstrings will be plucked as decent caring readers consider the merits of both sides of this argument. Surely putting these poor babies out of their misery is “an act of mercy.” But even assuming there’s some force to this argument, the line won’t be permanently drawn at the point of undeniable mercy. Someone will always be looking for “wiggle room.”
According to an article appearing in the May 1 issue of the journal “First Things,” Wesley J. Smith, senior fellow at The Discovery Institution’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and consultant for The Patient’s Rights Council, documents the creeping expansion of euthanasia in Europe. What started as a last resort for those facing unbearable pain or irreversible and progressive disease is expanded now to include those who are simply tired of coping with the challenges of life. By coincidence, those poor souls who make the decision to “end it all” under state-approved doctor supervision are becoming increasingly appealing sources for harvested organs to be used in transplants. Think variation on the “Soylent Green” thesis.
Already, the Groningen Protocol has been respectfully cited in the New England Journal of Medicine. Writers like bioethicist Jacob M. Appel of New York University is quoted as saying the protocol is “working and should be expanded.” This tendency to expand is exactly what worries us.
The eagerness to discard long-held and deeply treasured notions of what constitutes right and wrong is gathering speed. Many traditional Americans are alarmed at the disappearance of values that served as the bedrock for the strength and community of this country. Hopefully, progressive medical advances like the Groningen Protocol will not be permitted to successfully take root here. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is an Edmond resident and retired attorney.