Some babies are born so badly damaged, so ill, that modern medicine can do nothing for them except to prolong their dying. Others clearly merit, and can certainly benefit from, aggressive life-saving intervention. The task for a responsible and humane society is to draw the line in the right place.
Our thoughts on this issue are prompted by the argument over the now famous Indiana "Infant Doe" case, in which a retarded newborn child was allowed to die, and the lawyer for the child's parents claimed their decision to prevent his being treated or fed was a "private matter." We think retardation is clearly the wrong place to draw the line. We also think that to claim this is a private matter and to insist, as the parents' lawyer also did, that the judicial system "has no way of dealing" with such a case other than to mandate death is wrong. It is to disclaim social responsibility for an indisputably social choice. And it is also almost certain to perpetuate line-drawing at the wrong place as well as by the wrong people. When we do that, we should know and admit what we have achieved: homicide at the state's behest amounting to nothing less than a state-authored deprivation of innocent life without either due process of law or the equal protection of the laws. This the Constitution itself surely forbids.
At stake, after all, is the life of a human being, and by consistent extension, the lives of many human beings. The moral fabric of a society can be gauged by the way it treats its most voiceless and voteless members. That parents, presumably having the best interests of their incompetent children at heart, should have the first say in these matters, and a continuing important role, is certainly correct. But that is not to say that they should have the only say, or that courts should simply do their bidding. Nor is it to say that their decision is morally right simply because it originates with loving parents. Even loving parents can make mistakes. To think otherwise is to confuse the goodness of the decision-maker with the rightness of the decision. And that is to destroy ethics in principle, and with it, any public policy that would be grounded in sound ethics. It is to allow the right of self- determination to collapse into a lonely and atomized individualism.
Has the judicial system no way of dealing with cases like this? We submit that it has. It has but to recognize as applicable here the notion of non-discrimination and equality of respect that it employs so frequently in other matters. To withhold or withdraw possible life-saving treatment from a baby simply because it is young and retarded is a vicious form of discrimination by the adult, non- handicapped world against the immature and the retarded.
We are not judging the Bloomington incident or the parents involved, because detailed medical information is unavailable about the case. We are judging the generalization that a baby may be allowed to die simply because it is handicapped, and the assertion that the judicial system has "no way of dealing with" such cases. That, we think, is dead wrong.