Church of England leaders want doctors to be given the right to withhold treatment from seriously disabled newborn babies in exceptional circumstances. The move is expected to spark massive controversy.
The church leaders' call for some children to be allowed to die -- overriding the presumption that life should be preserved at any cost -- comes in response to an independent inquiry, which is to be published this week, into the ethics of resuscitating and treating extremely premature babies.
The decision by religious leaders to accept that in some rare cases it may be better to end life than to artificially prolong it is a landmark for the church.
"It may in some circumstances be right to choose to withhold or withdraw treatment, knowing it will possibly, probably, or even certainly result in death," Reverend Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark and vice chairmain of the Mission and Public Affairs Council, said in the church's submission to the inquiry.
The church's report does not spell out which medical conditions might justify a decision to allow babies to die but they are likely to be those agonizing dilemmas such as the one faced by the parents of Charlotte Wyatt, who was born three months prematurely, weighing just 2.5kg and with severe brain and lung damage.
The report also suggests the enormous cost implications to the UK's tax-funded National Health Service (NHS) of keeping very premature and sick babies alive with invasive medical care and the burden on the parents should also be taken into consideration.
Doctors wanted to switch off Charlotte's life support machine because they said the infant's severe mental and physical handicaps left her in constant pain with an "intolerable" quality of life. They pointed out that every time she had an infection, staff would have to give injections or set up drips that caused yet more pain.
After the case went through the courts, the child, now three, survived but with severe disabilities. She is now in care as her estranged parents found it too hard to meet her 24-hour healthcare needs.
The church's call comes in their submission to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that publishes guidelines on how doctors should deal with ethical issues. The council set up the inquiry nearly two years ago in order to consider the implications of advances which enable babies to be born halfway through pregnancy and kept alive.
Their statement comes the week after one of Britain's royal medical colleges called for a public discussion over whether to permit the euthanasia of extremely sickly babies. The recent proposal from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists was welcomed by geneticists and medical ethicists, but described it as social sengineering by others.
In its submission, the Church of England said that although it can not accept the argument that the life of any baby is not worth living, there are nevertheless "strong proportionate reasons" for "overriding the presupposition that life should be maintained."