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Anencephalic Infant Dilemma

December 21, 1987

Is allowing a dying anencephalic infant to live out a life of at most several months in the best interests of the infant?

Neither Leslie Rothenberg, D. Alan Shewmon, nor James Walters ask that question ("Anencephalic Infants: Means to an End or Ends in Themselves?" Op-Ed Page, Dec. 10). They focus instead on the morality of using such infants as sources of organs for other infants, and on the legal and moral problems of using anything other than whole brain death as a criterion for death.

Whose interests are being served by insisting that we do nothing but wait for anencephalics to die--which we assuredly know they are going to do--and in effect prolonging their dying? My suspicion is that we are using them as means to serve our interests.

Walters hints at this when he speaks of preserving "our own humanity" by not attaching an anencephalic to a respirator indefinitely for organ preservation. Rothenberg and Shewmon ask whether "those with advanced dementia or severe mental retardation (will) also be killed as they were in Nazi Germany--except, in this case, it would be for their organs?" Presumably, not killing anencephalics will prevent our sliding down the slippery slope to what the Nazis did.

These writers also appear to believe that killing such infants would be wrong, while letting them die is not. Philosopher James Rachels has developed a convincing argument, however, that once it is decided that death would be better than continuing to live, there is no moral difference between killing and letting die--and good reasons sometimes for the former. Is it better for anencephalics to go on dying instead of being killed? I don't think so--unless, that is, it is for our interests, in which case we are using them as means to our ends.

Also, it is disappointing that Rothenberg and Shewmon couldn't resist dragging in the Nazi red herring. Despite popular brief, what the Nazis did was not euthanasia. In no way could what they did be construed as in the interests of those they killed.



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