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Posted 03/06/2013

In the second century AD, the Greek physician, Soranus of Ephesus, wrote an influential text, ‘Gynaecology’, on the care of the newborn. He noted that among the Germans, Scythians and some civilised Greeks new born babies were subjected to ice cold baths to toughen them up, and also to test them, ‘in order to let die, as not worth rearing, one that cannot bear the chilling’.

For Soranus this test, but not the principle of testing, was open to question as being too stringent, as infants worth rearing could be put at risk.

Up to early medieval times, the practice of disposing of unhealthy, unwanted or non-viable babies was just what the Celtic, Norse, Greek and Germanic people did.

Not that much different from the chicks or runt of the litter being ignored or left to die. When we watch this in David Attenborough programmes our head and heart hurts - how could parents be so callous?

Attenborough’s animals face predators, droughts and cold winters while attempting to satisfy the constant demand to find enough calories to keep themselves alive and to support prior off-spring as well as newcomers. One extra chick might be manageable, but two could be a stretch too far and endanger all their lives. A calculation, an assessment, a judgement is made based on embedded experience and what happens in the group.

Testing human babies for viability drew to a close when the Christian church and the laws of the land stood against the practice.  Perhaps extra food also helped. A practice commonplace for 10,000 years or more would today be called infanticide.  What was once a necessity for survival is now, a big no-no.

In the way that the pagan winter solstice became assimilated into the Christian calendar as Christmas, so too, it is thought, the water test of viability, passed into baptism and washing the child’s head, shortly after birth as the public acknowledgement of a child with a soul and a name.

In today’s world of agribusiness and supermarkets we now have access to many more calories than we need. Likewise we have unlimited access to clean water.  Indeed stable government, industry and modern medication, mean that we do not face the same constraints as our forebears.

We are good, very good, at keeping people alive: we have the calories and we have the technology and the expertise. But our culture no longer permits us to decide if there is something worse than dying.

Recently a friend shared the agony and disharmony that had been going on inside his family as their elderly mother with an array of cancers launched into a new set of invasive treatments. In the absence of a clear steer from the mother, the family was split. Heavy-duty treatment was selected and an uncomfortable route to death ensued.

A mother I know well has a child who was born significantly prematurely and with an array of physical and mental problems that break your heart. Some years on, 24 hour care must always be on hand. As a mother she has a deep love and attachment to her child yet she still wonders why the doctors intervened and fought so hard, for so long to keep this tiny being, her child, alive.

We’ve come a long way from the accepted practice, for millennia, of an ice cold bath to test a baby’s viability.

I can’t help feeling that we have been seduced and captivated by drugs and technology and now simply accept that all that is technically possible must be done to preserve life.

At both ends of life we need the sensitivity, language, compassion and permission to recognise that in our modernity, we may have overstepped what our biology can take and what in the round may be the best decision.

I started with the lesson from an ancient Greek physician. And I will end from an adapted lesson from a red faced Glasgow drunk on Argyle Street. We caught one another’s eye at some distance and, on and off, and held the look between us. As we passed he gave me a big smile and said; ‘there are worse things than being an alcoholic’.

Sobering it might be, but there are worse things than dying.


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