Premature babies born before 22 weeks gestation should not be given intensive care treatment to keep them alive, according to a report released in Britain on Wednesday.
Despite medical advances in prolonging life, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics said the chances of an infant surviving after less than 22 weeks in the womb are very slim and that they often develop severe disabilities.
In guidelines issued to help doctors and parents make difficult decisions about the care of extremely premature infants, the report recommended parents of babies born after 23 should be consulted and have the final say in whether intensive care is given to their baby.
“Natural instincts are to try to save all babies, even if the baby’s chances of survival are low,” said Professor Margaret Brazier who chaired the committee that produced the report.
“However, we don’t think it is always right to put a baby through the stress and pain of invasive treatment if the baby is unlikely to get better and death is inevitable.”
The report by the independent body that examines ethical issues raised by new development in medicine was released after two years of research. It stressed euthanasia of newborn babies should not be allowed.
Religious leaders in Britain welcomed the report saying it sets a clear distinction between interventions to cause death and decisions to withdraw or withhold treatment if it is thought to be futile.
“This reaffirms the validity of existing law prohibiting euthanasia, and upholds the vital and fundamental moral principle that the deliberate taking of innocent human life is always gravely wrong,” the Church of England House of Bishops and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said in a joint statement.
They added that doctors do not have an overriding obligation to prolong life by all available means and said every case should be judged on its merits.
The report said it should be normal practice to give intensive care to babies born between 24-25 weeks gestation unless it is agreed by the doctors and the parents that there is no hope of the infant surviving or that the level of suffering would be too great.
Babies born after more than 25 weeks in the womb have a high chance of survival and a low risk of suffering from disabilities.
Dr. Tony Calland, chairman of the medical ethics committee at the British Medical Association (BMA) said the guidelines issued in the report echo existing best practice.
But the BMA did not agree with stringent cut-off points for treatment and stressed that each case should be assessed independently.
“The BMA is opposed to euthanasia and therefore we agree that the active ending of life of newborn babies should not be allowed,” Calland said in a statement.
Although the number of premature babies surviving has been increasing since the 1980s, only about 1 percent of infants born between 22 and 23 weeks gestation survive to leave hospital, according to the report.
“We believe that the guidelines will help parents and doctors to make decisions in these very traumatic situations,” Brazier added.