When my son was born prematurely at 27 weeks, no one asked me if I wanted them to try to keep him alive. His tiny body, weighing less than 2 pounds, couldn't have survived without medical intervention, but he received it without question and he thrived and grew into the amazing, perfectly healthy 7-year-old boy he is today.
But babies born just a few weeks sooner than he was would get no medical intervention and would be left to die if a top doctor in the UK has her way. Dr. Daphne Austin, who heads up the NHS, says very premature babies -- those born before 24 weeks -- are too expensive to save. In a recent documentary she said keeping them alive is "prolonging their agony," and that the money used to treat them could be better spent treating things like cancer. She also said doctors are "doing more harm than good by resuscitating 23-weekers."
As harsh as it sounds, I've got to say I agree with her in some ways.
With my son we were lucky, blessed, under a lucky star, or whatever you want to believe -- but he is the exception for babies born so small. Many at his gestation have long-term disabilities and challenges that they and their families must deal with for life. And he was born a full four weeks after the limit this doctor is talking about. Four weeks is a long time, a lifetime really for these babies.
According to an article in the Daily Mail, of the babies born before 24 weeks gestation, only 9 percent ever leave the hospital. The rest die. Of those who survive, only 1 in 100 escapes without a disability like blindness or cerebral palsy. There are discrepancies in the exact statistics depending on who you ask, but the bottom line is that the odds are very much against these babies.
Everyone loves a great preemie miracle story, and they're beautiful, truly they are. But there are many more families who lose their children after extreme measures are taken or who live painful lives trying to help children with extreme medical needs.
Also, while you never want to put a price on a life, the fact is that the extraordinary efforts taken to try and save these babies are expensive. In the United States alone, premature births cost $26 billion, and if that money could be used to help save lives that have better chances of being saved, then we have to at least consider that fact.
Modern medicine is amazing, and our instinct is to fix anything and everything and marvel at our powers. But sometimes that power goes too far, and we have to step back and let nature step in to guide us. That's tough for me to say, because if doctors had stepped aside when my son was born, I don't think he would be with us today, and that very thought crushes me. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere it seems, a humane line that doesn't try to force a life that may not be meant to be. I don't know if 24 weeks is the line, but it is an important part of the discussion that's going to continue as prematurity rates continue to rise.
Do you think very premature babies should be resuscitated?
Image via Cesar Rincon/Flickr