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8 Feb, 2010 12:29

Journalist calls for euthanasia of disabled newborns

The article titled “Finish it off so it doesn’t suffer,” which calls for the euthanasia of disabled newborn children, has caused public outrage in Russia and has led to fierce debates in the blogging community.

In the article under question, the author Aleksandr Nikonov argues that the birth of a disabled child for many families would be an unbearable tragedy, “a hell”, and that “the killing of the newborn is in fact the same as an abortion”. He states that depriving infants, who will never be able to take care of themselves, of life is “true humanism”. He also calls to give parents of such children a right to euthanize their newborns, like relatives of patients in a vegetative state can allow doctors to shut down life support.

The provocative text which described disabled newborns as “defective blanks” and “newborn idiots” naturally caused uproar among people who have mentally-challenged family members as well as human rights activists. The fiercest critics said Nikonov’s ideas paralleled those of the Nazis, who made euthanasia of mentally-ill part of state policy, killing tens of thousands of institutionalized people. Others pointed out that he was plainly wrong in his judgment of how disabled children are treated by their families.

“The author is not raising a disabled child – that is why his generalized conclusions about the life of disabled people and their families… are just speculations. As a mother of a disabled child, and based on my experience, I state that these speculations have nothing to do with the reality,” said Svetlana Shtarkova, who, along with another disabled child’s mother, Snezhana Mitina, has written a letter to the Board of the Union of Russian Journalists.

Following the complaint, the Union of Russian Journalists gathered an ad hoc session of a public board to discuss the article. The board accused the author of the article of breaching professional ethics, adding that he should have realized he was humiliating people who are already bringing up disabled kids. The newspaper where the controversial article was published was also criticized by the board for not presenting any material to balance Nikonov’s piece.

The author disagrees with the criticism and defends his position: “You make people suffer for the sake of ideologies and interpretations of humanism you have in your head. What we offer is choice, and you wrap it inside out, presenting it as if we call for killing of all those disabled people. Nothing like that! We don’t stand against wheel cart ramps or your right to bring up disabled children, we stand for the right to choose,” he told the board.

He says even his original headline read “Commander, finish me to spare the suffering,” is a well-recognized reference to a war-time model scenario, where a wounded soldier asks that he be sacrificed so as not to slow down his retreating squad.

In Russia as in many countries of the world there is still a long way to go to get society to treat people with disabilities as equals,” says Tim Wall, editor in chief of Moscow News “I think that newspapers and TV channels that would give this guy a platform ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

Other people took a more neutral attitude to the article. For instance, famous Russian journalist Svetlana Sorokina, who was part of the board session, said that Nikonov’s scandalous article managed to draw much needed public attention to the problems of the disabled community. “It just happens that Aleksandr gave start to a discussion on the issue, made an opportunity for others to speak out or form their opinion,” she said.

In his article, Nikonov did what he does best, and over-performed, believes his colleague Pavel Shermet: “Now everyone is branding Nikonov for what he said. He always loved a provocative approach to journalism… The difference between a professional provocation and outright stupidity and offense is very thin. But I neither tolerate squeamish hypocrisy, nor the people, who demand ‘positive news’ and make face when they hear a profane word.”

Author and blogger Deidre Clark argues that the right to express one’s opinion is nonetheless inviolable, however hurtful is its effect on others.

“There are lots of things that lots of people write that hurt someone’s feelings. You don’t want everyone in the newspaper to just write things that won’t hurt anyone,” said Clark. “But [Nikonov’s] debate actually ended up being a good thing for Russia because so many people are now discussing the problem of Down Syndrome babies.”

According to statistics, there are 545,000 disabled kids in Russia. Only 12.2% of them live in foster homes, 23.6% of these children have various organ diseases and/or metabolic disorders, 23.1% have motor disabilities, and 21.3% have mental disabilities.