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Countering the Myth of the Perfect Child. Bioethics Courses Focus on "Neonatal Euthanasia" and Other Problems
ROME, DEC. 16, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Dr. Gerald Brungardt learned an unsettling fact when he came to Italy for an intensive weeklong course on bioethics.

The palliative care specialist from Wichita, Kansas, was surprised to learn that the average Italian woman has 12 sonograms during her pregnancy.

"It indicates our current fear of the non-perfect child," Brungardt said, "for which Dr. Bellieni has coined the term 'handiphobia' -- fear of the handicapped, the risks and realities of in vitro fertilization, embryo adoption, and neonatal/infant euthanasia."

He was referring to Dr. Carlo Bellieni, a neonatologist from Siena and self-described "fetus doctor" who teaches "The Myth of the Perfect Child" course during the week of studies at the Regina Apostolorum athenaeum's School of Bioethics.

A recurring theme in the many anecdotes Bellieni told his class of 80 students was how often parents reduce children to objects.

"We saw in this class how the child is no longer loved unconditionally and respected as a human person," said Dr. Laura Nino, a medical researcher from Houston, Texas, who participated in the course. Rather, the child is sometimes "seen as an object of possession which parents can dispose of when he or she falls short of their expectations," she added.

Amniocentesis

That sense of high expectations in parents can even lead to the death of perfectly healthy children in the womb.

Bellieni cited the example of prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and the proliferation of the use of amniocentesis. That surgical procedure involves inserting a hollow needle through the abdominal wall into the uterus of a pregnant woman and extracting amniotic fluid, which may be analyzed to determine the sex of the developing fetus, or the presence of disease or genetic defects.

"A healthy fetus dies for every 200 amniocenteses done which, for 35-year-old woman, is about the same risk as having a Down syndrome child," observed Bellieni.

"This means that in order to eliminate one Down syndrome child, we accept the risk of the death of another innocent child as an adverse effect of the amniocentesis," he said.

Bellieni sees a deeper problem lurking behind the overuse of amniocentesis and the widespread tolerance of abortion. That problem touches on interpersonal relations and even self-image, all of which he talks of in almost philosophical language.

"I" of the storm

"Most fundamentally, we cannot say 'I' anymore because saying 'I' would mean that we have found someone who has called us by name and loved us only because we exist, not because of our utility," Bellieni contended.

"This loss of the capacity to say 'I' leads to our loss of the capacity to say 'You' to the fetus," he added. "We do not love ourselves anymore and therefore we cannot love others. We see others, including the fetus, as a means and not as the end they truly are. One of the consequences of this outlook would be neonatal euthanasia."

"The Myth of the Perfect Child" is only one of several bioethics courses offered recently at Regina Apostolorum. The weeklong courses are offered twice each semester, and once during the summer to accommodate non-traditional students working toward degrees in bioethics.

Now in its fifth year, the athenaeum's School of Bioethics boasts 350 students from 30 countries. Lay people -- including politicians and health-care professionals -- study side by side with religious.

One of the invited guest speakers for next April's intensive courses is Dr. Edmund Pellegrino, the new chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics in the United States. More information about the courses is posted at www.upra.org or available via bioethics@upra.com.

Among those who came to Rome this year to deepen their knowledge of science -- and the faith -- was Jennifer Miller of New York.

"Coming from Fordham University," she said, "I saw that scientists get so desensitized that they forget what they are really doing. There is a need to re-humanize science with a focus on human dignity."