Anglicans hit for backing baby euthanasia

London, England - The Church of England's support for euthanasia of severely disabled babies has drawn sharp criticism from the Catholic Church and evangelical Anglicans, who warned yesterday that the position was morally dangerous.

The Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, said this week in a submission to an independent inquiry that there may be circumstances when it is morally acceptable to perform a "possibly lethal act".

Going further than any mainstream church leader has before, the bishop said the economic cost of long-term healthcare and education must be considered when deciding whether a child's life should be saved.

But the evangelical wing of the Anglican church warned yesterday that the bishop's views were a move towards euthanasia.

Reverend Rod Thomas, an evangelical who speaks for the Reform conservative movement, said such conclusions were a dangerous slippery slope. "It is something that will tend to weaken the adamant refusal of the Church to accept euthanasia," he said.

Dr Butler has submitted a paper to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a think tank that advises on the moral dilemmas created by scientific advances.

The council - made up of clinicians, lawyers, philosophers, scientists and theologians - will publish guidance this week about how to deal with very premature and sick babies.

Medical breakthroughs now enable some newborn babies to survive even when they are so premature they could have been legally aborted.

Children born 22 weeks into pregnancy have lived, while the abortion limit is 24 weeks.

Some research suggests these tiny infants are at greater risk of medical problems in later life, although a recent Canadian study found they showed no significant differences from other children.

The bishop made his submission as public affairs vice-chairman for the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council, whose brief includes social responsibility and hospital chaplaincies.

In the bishop's submission, he says: "For a Christian, death is not the end, and is not to be avoided at all costs as if it were.

"The primary principle from the Christian tradition is that all life is a gift from God, whether inside the womb or outside, whether disabled or not."

But he went on to say: "It may, in some circumstances, be right to choose to withhold or withdraw treatment, knowing it will possibly, probably or even certainly result in death.

"To justify such a course of action, two conditions would have to be met," he said. "First, there would have to be very strong proportionate reasons for overriding the presupposition that life should be maintained. Second, all reasonable alternatives would have to be fully considered so the possibly lethal act would only be performed with manifest reluctance."

He concluded: "There are many instances in the life of Christ where he overrode rule-based systems. There may be occasions where, for a Christian, compassion will override the rule that life should inevitably be preserved. Disproportionate treatment for the sake of prolonging life is an example of this."

In response, the Catholic Church issued a statement yesterday strongly defending the right to life.

"While it is both moral and legal to withhold or withdraw aggressive medical treatment in such cases when it is futile or unduly burdensome, it can never be right to sanction action aimed at the deliberate killing of an innocent human being," it said.

But the Dean of Southwark, Colin Slee, defended his bishop's submission as a work of theology, compassion and common sense.

"It doesn't say anything terribly radical," he said.

"What it says is, in good King James language, thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive officiously to keep alive."