Unborn Baby with Dwarfism Killed at 32 Weeks in Australian Hospital

By Liz Townsend

Australian pro-lifers were horrified to learn that a 32-week-old unborn baby diagnosed with dwarfism died from a late-term abortion in a Melbourne hospital January 31. Royal Women's Hospital initially suspended the three doctors involved in the abortion July 2 after an internal review, but quickly reinstated them and issued a report saying they acted in "good faith," according to The Age.

Pro-lifers and disability-rights advocates said they were appalled that the baby was killed within weeks of birth. "It needs to be reinforced that dwarfism is not a death sentence and life remains very much full of promise," Francis Kelly, chair of Short-Statured People of Australia (SSPA), told The Age. "We're short. So what?"

Kelly added that most people with dwarfism, who grow no taller than 4 feet, 11 inches at maturity, "lead healthy, happy, and fulfilling lives."

The doctors - - an obstetrician, a clinical geneticist, and a psychiatrist--considered the baby's mother "suicidal" when she demanded an abortion in January, The Age reported. The hospital's medical director, Glenn Bowes, told the newspaper that the woman had no previous history of mental illness. Abortions are allowed in the state of Victoria, where the hospital is located, at any stage of pregnancy if a woman's life or physical or mental health is endangered, according to a 1969 state Supreme Court decision.

Bowes said he did not know which abortion procedure was used, but speculated that the baby received a lethal injection before being delivered stillborn shortly after, according to The Age.

Although the doctors have regained full clinical privileges at Royal Women's Hospital, hospital officials referred the case to the coroner and the Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria for investigation. The hospital asked for external review of the doctors' actions for several reasons.

"Our matter of concern relates to the extent to which there was a possibility that the death of the foetus was induced prior to delivery," Bowes told The Age. "Clearly the fact that this was a late gestation pregnancy and that the foetal malformation present was not one that was lethal are matters that were substantive to our concern."

Australian pro-lifers, however, do not expect the doctors to be disciplined further. "I am not surprised that they have been reinstated," said Margaret Tighe, president of Right to Life Victoria, "and whilst the matter has been referred to the Medical Practitioners Board, given [the board's] track record on the issue I think they will be slapped with a feather."

An interim report released by a hospital panel July 11 found that the doctors' decisions "were considered and then carried out in good faith" and in the interests of the baby's mother, The Age reported.

Referring to the doctors' actions, the report concluded, "It would appear that in this case the management was acceptable to both the patient and her experienced and respected practitioners," the panel stated. "It is certainly not for the internal inquiry panel to impose their individual ethical positions as a judgment of this case."

Royal Women's Hospital also formed a five-member "termination review committee," which will decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to allow abortions after 23 weeks for non-fatal conditions and non-obstetric reasons, The Age reported. Doctors would also need approval from the committee for "lethal injections for foetuses or foeticide by any other means" at any point in pregnancy, according to the newspaper.

A recent survey of Australian doctors found that 78% of Victoria obstetricians would support abortion for babies diagnosed with dwarfism at 13 weeks' gestation, while only 14% would support such abortions at 24 weeks, according to The Age. However, obstetricians who specialize in ultrasound, the test most commonly used to diagnose the condition, almost unanimously supported abortion at 13 weeks and support remained high - - 70% - - for aborting a 24-week-old unborn baby with dwarfism.

According to people with the condition, the survey results are upsetting. "It makes me angry," Kelly of SSPA told The Age, "it makes me sad." His organization is dedicated to changing people's attitudes about dwarfism through education.

"People of short stature are entitled to receive the same love, respect, care, education and opportunities as anyone else," according to a mission statement published on the SSPA web site. "We envisage a society that respects and promotes the rights of all its members."