Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Euthanasia before birth

The Seinfeld series is arguably one of the most comical comedies around with the characters living an almost cartoon world, where nothing is sacrosanct and they are all borderline insane. Euthanasia is no laughing matter but the series takes it up without fear, gives it a comical twist where the character George a hypochondriac, believes that an acidity attack is actually a terminal illness and dramatically commands his friend Jerry to kill him. Jerry briskly says okay, pulls out a pillow and happily proceeds to smother the terrified George with it.

It is a hilarious scene but one point is clear. When push comes to shove, does the victim of a terminal illness or someone heading for a lingering death really want to die before their time comes? Or is it the doctor, or aged relative, or other caregivers busy with their own lives fearful of not being able to handle the personal physical, mental and financial toll involved in prolonging the patient’s life? It is backbreaking work, highly stressful and very, very expensive.
A worn looking woman who looked to be in her fifties was actually 38 years old, had a son who was born with multiple disabilities. He was deaf, dumb, blind and suffered from a form of cerebral palsy where he could not sit upright or walk. The child was healthy and at 12 grew big and heavy. She blamed the doctors who she said could have warned her early enough. Would you have aborted the child, I asked her and she said emphatically, yes. She was too terrified to have another child. She was terrified about what would happen to her son after she and her husband died.

This leads naturally to the nightmare the Mehtas find themselves in with the Bombay High Court refusing to allow them to abort their 25-month old foetus. During a routine diagnosis in her 24th week her obstetrician found that the woman’s unborn child was suffering from a congenital heart block. The baby, who may not survive the womb, would have to be fitted with a pacemaker immediately after being born. It would have to be surgically replaced often. Even then, the prognosis was that continuous ailment would compromise the life of the child. The pregnant mother says she does not want to have a compromised quality of life for her child and cannot afford the expensive treatment, which may or may not give results. She wanted an abortion, but the doctors refused since abortions cannot be carried out on foetuses that are more than 20 weeks old. The Mehta couple approached the High Court which said a flat “no”.

So is the pregnant mother doing this out of selfishness? One doubts that because she is putting herself at great risk. A pregnancy termination procedure at 25 weeks is extremely dangerous for the mother. Extremely traumatic too because the method used is either induced labour where the foetus is delivered, or dilation and extraction which involves collapsing the head of the foetus and delivering the rest of the body. The pregnant mother feels the risk is worth the alternative of her child asking her later, “If you knew this would be my life, why did you give birth to me?”
The medical fraternity feels there are solutions to the problem and that there is no need for an abortion. There are those who say it is the parents’ decision and society has no right to pass judgement.

This reminds me of another couple I knew. More than 20 years ago the pregnant mother was laid low with either malaria or jaundice, which involved taking heavy drugs. Her doctors advised her to abort since her child would be born disabled. Both parents refused and said it did not matter. Their child would be born and they would handle whatever happened. Their child was born, a lovely bouncing baby girl, who grew up to be a bright and beautiful young woman.

I am a great believer in playing the cards you are dealt. I hope the “No” from the Bombay High Court turns out to be the best thing that happened to the Mehtas.

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