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Is It Sometimes Wrong to Keep Preemies Alive?

Death or severe disability?

That’s the choice countless parents face when a pregnancy suddenly gets difficult and a months-early delivery is imminent.

Technology has greatly increased the survival rate of super premature babies, those born at the 28-week or younger mark and typically weighing much less than 3 lbs. But survival can come at a cost. Babies born so underdeveloped often mean life-long disabilities like blindness, deafness, brain damage and cerebral palsy.

Still, ask the parents whose children made it and it’s not unusual to hear that they made the right choice. One couple, interviewed in the U.K. Daily Mail, said they are still haunted by the fact that they asked doctors to allow their girl, born at 24 weeks and weighing 1 lb. 7 oz., to die peacefully were she to develop a brain hemorrhage (though they allowed for breathing assistance). The girl, Meghan Haley, survived and is a strong and healthy 4-year-old.

Another couple, whose twins Thomas and Alice were born at 24 weeks and 1 and 1/2 pounds each, also say they don’t regret their decision to ask doctors to save the children’s lives at all cost. This despite the fact that the brother and sister both have cerebral palsy, are quadriplegic and blind, among other problems.

For all these happy — or, at least, regret-free — endings, there are those who made a different choice or live with different consequences (unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail didn’t talk to any of them. No doubt, there are likely those who are quite relieved with their choice). Still others take to heart new studies that show all the early medical intervention sets up these kids for a lifelong over-sensitivity to pain — making parents have to weigh quality of life, if the child survives.

Of course, these decisions are personal and should be made without judgment. In the U.S., these decisions are also made with affordability in mind, since the consequences of taking on a severely disabled and extremely ill newborn can be financially devastating.

But still, have we reached a point where live-saving technology is the enemy? Where we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t? What is the role doctors should play, if any, in these decisions? It’s important to note that 24-weeks-gestation babies don’t have any higher survival rate now than they did 15 years ago. They’re simply living a little longer.

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Photo: Daily Mail

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