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Medical Care of Newborns

There are several problems involved in the care of newborns. Once the baby is born, the husband has the same rights as the mother to consent to the baby's care. An unmarried father cannot consent to treatment for the baby unless it is legally established that he is the father. If the mother is unable to consent and the husband is unavailable, other relatives may consent to care for the baby (see the earlier on consent). These relatives may not consent if either parent is available.

Some babies are born with illnesses or birth defects that cannot be cured. These babies may live only a few months, they may be severely mental retarded, or they may always be in great pain. Before the baby is born, the mother and husband should discuss this question with the physician and decide whether they want "heroic measures" (meaning extraordinary medical procedures) used to save the baby if there is little chance of a normal life. If you do want the baby treated, no matter what the outcome, this desire should be put in writing in the consent form signed by you upon admission (or preadmission). Keep a copy of this consent form for your records.

If you do not want heroic measures used, you should also put this in writing (in the consent form, with a copy for yourself). If you wish to prepare such instructions, it is advisable to obtain an attorney's advice. The courts do not give parents an unqualified right to order the withholding of medical care for an infant; they usually agree with physicians who recommend certain measures to preserve a child's life. There is a serious potential conflict between the physician's ethical duty to preserve human life and the possibility that prolonged extraordinary measures taken to save an infant may only prolong its suffering and leave the parents with an infant who dies anyway, plus a huge hospital bill. Because of the seriousness and complexity of these questions, there are often no clear answers.

Once the baby is born, you should ask for a complete description of the baby's condition. If the condition is serious and extraordinary treatment is recommended, you should get this in writing. At this point, it is very desirable to get a second opinion on recommended treatment. You should remind the physicians (talk to the staff physicians, not residents) that they must get your consent for any care. If you feel that the baby is being treated without your consent, you should call the hospital administrator or your attorney at once.

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