"I'm sorry, your baby will be born with [insert birth defect or illness here]; would you like to have it aborted?"
I know that there are most likely thousands of medical malpractice suits filed each year. [About 85,000 annually according to this report] What I did not know is that a portion of them fall into the category of Wrongful Birth.
A variety of Internet sites agree in principle that in a wrongful birth action, parents seek damages for a child born with birth defects. The claim for damages is based on the cost to parents of raising an unexpectedly defective child. There is also a companion suit known as Wrongful Life. In a wrongful life action, the child seeks damages for being born with a birth defect rather than not being born.
Let me preface my forthcoming remarks with the statement that I can in no way imagine the anguish a parent undergoes when they are faced with a newborn that will require extraordinary care. My wife and I were blessed with two healthy sons. As I suspect all parents do, we worried if anything would be wrong with our kids. My wife had amniocentesis tests during both pregnancies. And although there were a couple of things that showed up that could have had the potential of manifesting as what we would call abnormal traits, we ended up with two generally healthy - normal - boys.
The article that started me thinking about this aired on NPR this morning.
The segment highlighted Sharon and Steven Hoffman's son, Jake, who was born with Tay-Sachs, a genetic disease that mainly affects Jewish families and is usually fatal by age 4 or 5.
"There's no treatment. There's no cure. There's nothing," Sharon says.
She says her doctor did not test for the disease. At six months, Jake was diagnosed with it. The couple says he lost control of his muscles and had constant seizures. He died two years later before reaching his third birthday. Sharon says she would have had an abortion if she had known.
"There is no quality of life," Sharon says. "The only thing that you would be bringing this child into the world to do is to suffer. And die."
[Previous four (4) paragraphs quoted from this NPR report]
Again, let me state that I have no idea how I would react if I had been in Mr. Hoffman's shoes.
In a veritable whirlwind of emotional upheaval, there are two main issues here:
- Who is at fault (i.e. guilty) for a child born with serious birth defects?
- Can we actually take a step that requires killing a child and call it mercy?
Is justice blind?
In principle, I see clear cut cases where a trained, medical professional can screw up and directly cause something harmful to happen to a child before he or she is born. I can totally understand parents taking doctors, hospitals, etc. to task for these instances.
But what about a child that, through no fault of anyone, has a birth defect? Is it fair to sue the doctor or hospital merely because a specific test wasn't run? How many parents have sat in a medical facility and said, "Is that test really necessary?" out of concern for the mother's health or maybe for financial reasons due to limitations in health care coverage.
Are we really saying that we humans should have the power of life and death over another human if that person does not meet our standard of normal? Can we blame this on advances in medical science that give us nearly unlimited ability to diagnose fetal health? Or more accurately, the failure to employ such advances in all cases?
And that brings us to the real question we should ask ourselves: do we understand the concept of life well enough to make that decision?
What do you think?