Volume > Issue > The Treatment of Handicapped Infants

The Treatment of Handicapped Infants


By Gregory F. Aloia | March 1984
Gregory F. Aloia is Professor of Special Education at Arkansas State University, where he was named the Outstanding Faculty Member for 1982-1983 (for his research, teaching, and service).

During the past few years an intense debate has been raging among professionals as to what the most appropriate responses should be in terms of treatment, care, and life support for the handicap­ped infant. While the controversy is currently being waged, however, actual responses have not remain­ed stationary. Unfortunately, the steps taken to date are not only dismal for the defective infant, but reflect a fundamental shift in the ethical pos­ture of society. There has been a systematic ero­sion of the traditional belief in the sanctity of each human life, and a gradual transformation to anoth­er, relativistic standard. Today, the overriding fac­tor is not the inherent sanctity of a human being, but rather his potential “quality,” his usefulness, and general overall “value” to society.

Beginning with the development and refine­ment of amniocentesis as a prenatal screening tech­nique, the value and sanctity of life of the handi­capped newborn has deteriorated to a point where society has openly begun to practice involuntary euthanasia. As a medical technique, amniocentesis is capable of detecting all chromosomal disorders as well as 60 inborn errors of metabolism. Howev­er, the real impact of amniocentesis did not surface until the abortion laws were legalized.

The Roe v. Wade decision was a catalyst for a tremendous surge in abortions in the United States. The initial ruling of the Supreme Court said essentially that prior to viability (i.e., the ability of the fetus to survive ex utero), an abortion could be procured practically on demand. The marriage of this event with amniocentesis helped to produce a fundamental shift in the mentality of society to­ward the defective infant. As E.F. Diamond states:

The recognition of chromosomal disor­ders during prenatal life has had the ef­fect of the establishment of a “free-fire zone” during the late-middle and last tri­mester. Today, there are no restrictions on aborting mongoloid children even af­ter viability.

This dramatic shift has led some to express a fear that the next logical step in response to the handicapped newborn child would be a program of selective infanticide.

However, S. Bok challenged that hypothesis and concluded that it was essentially unfounded. In light of recent events, however, it seems Bok’s 1974 comment that “the fear of slipping from abortion to infanticide does not seem to be grounded in fact” must be seriously reconsidered.

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