TESTIMONY OF F. SESSIONS COLE, M.D.
COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY
SUBCOMMITTEE ON THE CONSTITUTION
UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
20 July 2000
Mr. Chairman, Honorable Representatives, Staff, and spectators. My name is Francis Sessions Cole, and my family, including our two daughters, ages 16 and 14, and my wife of 28 years resides in St. Louis, Missouri. I appear before you to offer testimony concerning Representative Canady's Born Alive Infants Protection Act of 2000 (H.R. 4292) as a physician whose specialty is care of newborn infants. My testimony is not sponsored by any organization. I completed my pediatric residency training at Boston Children's Hospital and my specialty training in caring for newborn infants in the Joint Program in Neonatology at Harvard Medical School. Since my Board certification in Pediatrics in 1981, I have cared for more than 10,000 newborn infants directly, and I currently have administrative responsibility for approximately one half of all the babies born in St. Louis annually (approximately 13,000 babies). I also have an active clinical practice that focuses on caring for babies whose transition from womb to world is complicated by one or more problems like prematurity, birth defects, infections, or problems with the afterbirth or placenta. I routinely encounter babies whose problems place them on the edge of viability.
The language of H.R. 4292 would impose on doctors and parents a universal definition of "life" or "alive" which is, in my experience as a neonatologist, inconsistent with the harsh reality presented by a number of circumstances. The fact is that the indicia identified in the bill - breathing, or a beating heart, or pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles - are not themselves necessarily indicative of life or continued viability. Frequently, the heartbeats of infants will be maintained by medicines, not nature; their breathing may be present but ineffective as they die; they may move voluntary muscles during the dying process.
As a physician who cares for ill newborn infants, I feel that I have the greatest practice in medicine, because my practice permits me to participate in miracles everyday. Thanks to significant advances in technology over the last 20 years, babies whose parents could have been offered no hope can now see their babies survive and, for the most part, exceed both their parents' and their doctors' expectations as they develop. Unfortunately, even today's most advanced medical science is still a long way from being able to offer every sick infant a reasonable chance for survival. In fact, in our neonatal intensive care unit, approximately 10% of the infants do not respond to advanced technology and pass away. These deaths result from accidents of nature that are no one's fault, and they are excruciatingly difficult for parents, doctors, and nurses. Frequently, the emotional pain of the decision to terminate treatment in such cases is compounded by the fact that the technology that we provide babies requires painful, invasive procedures. When parents and physicians together decide that life support technology is futile for an infant and is only prolonging the pain of the dying process, parents have a moral and legal obligation to minimize the suffering of their baby, regardless of the pain such a turn of events brings to them in their loss.
The language of H.R. 4292 will, in my view, significantly interfere with the agonizing, painful and personal decisions that must be left to parents in consultation with their physicians. Imposing the proposed definition of "alive" or "life" for statutory purposes may cause parents to prolong the medically inevitable dying process of their infants out of fear that terminating that process might be deemed to be, for legal purposes, the termination of a life, when in fact all that would be terminated would be the painful process of death. Prolonging treatment in such cases would be not the saving of a "life", but the prolonging of the pain and suffering of inevitable death. As a physician whose career has been dedicated to the welfare of newborns, and especially critically-ill newborns, I urge the Subcommittee not to inject an unnecessary and unrealistic definition of "life", with all its legal implications, into the already agonizing and heart-breaking situation faced by parents of infants in the dying process.