by Jeremy R. Garrett, Brian S. Carter & John D. Lantos
This editorial is made available on bioethics.net. The editorial along with the target article and open peer commentary is available via tandfonline.com.
Neonatal intensive care is one of the most successful medical innovations of the last half century. Every year, in the United States alone, nearly 500,000 babies are born prematurely. Before neonatal intensive care, most of those babies died, and those who survived often suffered significant life-limiting impairments. Today, most preemies survive without impairments.
In spite of this success, neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) care has always been viewed as ethically problematic. The objections to this care have taken different forms at different times.
Economists questioned whether neonatal intensive care was cost-effective. Careful studies showed that it was more cost-effective than any other form of intensive care, and even more cost-effective than many modalities of preventive care (including, for example, Pap smears).
Some parents claimed that doctors were not honestly informing them of the potential long-term sequelae of NICU care, and that, if honestly informed, many parents would choose palliative care. Careful studies showed that these parents were unusual. Most parents want more intensive care than even doctors and nurses think is appropriate, and they want it even when informed that survivors might be left with significant disabilities.
Bioethicists and doctors argued that neonatologists were playing God, that premature babies were not full-fledged persons, and that saving disabled babies was like an ill-conceived military mission. Each of these attempts to undermine the commitment made by parents, doctors, and society to saving preemies has been met with hard questions and strong rebuttals.