The religious and medical professions have reacted sharply in the wake of a task force report to the Anglican Church of Canada that suggests that it may be morally right to terminate the life of new-born infants with severe brain damage.
The comments contained in four paragraphs of a 16-page report entitled "Dying Considerations Concerning the Passage from Life to Death," says that in cases where such infants lack "the least vestige of human behavior and intellect," the decision to terminate life should be up to the parents.
The report, prepared by 11 people with backgrounds in medicine, theology, nursing and law, is to be discussed by the Church's General Synod meetings in Calgary, Aug. 11-18. It has been circulated to the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] delegates who will be attending the synod.
The document outlines the Church's role with the dying and says that its primary responsibility is to provide the best possible care for the dying patient.
The Church should educate the community about the needs of the dying patient and of the next-of-kin and it should encourage effective care for the terminally ill and the establishment of small medical units for them, it states. It recommends also that home care programs be expanded, so that more individuals can choose to die at home.
These recommendations have been quickly forgotten in the wake of publicity that has surrounded the task force's statement on new-born infants with severe neurological defects.
"Our senses and emotions lead us into the grave mistake of treating human-looking shapes as if they were human although they lack the least vestige of human behavior and intellect," the report says. "In fact, the only way to treat such defective infants humanely is not to treat them as human.
"In such situations, the parents would have the paramoung say in reaching the decision to terminate life. The decision cannot be made hurriedly or without great soul-searching and the parents must be prepared to live with the decision afterwards and not be destroyed by guilt. It is here that strong support is required from all those associated with the parents and certainly where the church can play a leading role."
Dr. Lawrence Whytehead, chairman of the task force, defended the report and noted that while euthanasia is a crime according to the Canadian criminal code, judgments by juries are discretionary.
"The letter of the law doesn't allow for it, but the spirit of the law does. There is really no need to change the law," he said. "Many things are done now which are against the law - like law chooses not to regard this as a criminal thing to do, though by the letter of the law it is."
Condemnation of the report by Church officials from other denominations, physicians and spokesmen for prolife groups caused Archdeacon E.S. Light, general secretary of the Church, to issue a statement stressing that it does not represent any official or authoritative view of the Church.
"It is only an interim report, prepared by the task force for presentation to the 1977 session of the General Synod," he said.
While spokesmen from the Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Seventh-day Adventist churches called the report "anti-Christian" and its viewpoint "a serious sin," the head of a United Church of Canada Commission on Ethics and Genetics said he believes the report is a "very responsible document."
The Rev. Ernest Best, a Toronto ethics professor, said the Anglican report is based on the same religious principles adopted by his own task force's report on the hazards and benefits of modern genetic research.
That document argues that parents of a severely diseased fetus ought to be able to make the final decision on whether or not to have an abortion. It will be debated at the United Church's General Council sessions that follow the Anglican synod.