Sunday, 31 January 2010

Mercy Killing?

In the last couple of weeks there have been a couple of news stories that have interested me. I mentioned months ago that I thought euthanasia should be legal, or at least not legislated against, which is basically the same. However given recent cases highlighting the issue of consent, I feel the need to clarify my position.

The cases I’m referring to are the deaths of Thomas Inglis and Lynn Gilderdale by their respective mothers. Both deaths actually happened in 2008, but they have only just been resolved in court. Frances Inglis was given a life sentence with a minimum of nine year, whereas Bridget Gilderdale was cleared of the charge of attempted murder. Despite this seeming contradiction, I broadly agree with both of these verdicts. Although the sentence is questionable, Mrs Inglis acted immorally, whereas Mrs Gilderdale was perfectly within her right to do what she did.

The difference between these two cases is consent. Thomas Inglis had brain damage and was unable to make the choice of whether or not he wanted to die, Lynn Gilderdale was desperate to end her life. Frances Inglis too her son’s will into her own hands, where as Bridget Gilderdale was acting in accordance with her daughters wishes. Lynn wanted to die and we should not begrudge her to right because she is unable to do it herself. No-one could have known whether Thomas wanted to die or not, and even if he did, his mother had no right to take his life into her own hands, even if it was out of sympathy.

What makes the Inglis case even worse is that the doctors said Thomas would recover. Mrs Inglis refused to believe this and took her own, subjective and uninformed opinion. She might have been acting out of compassion, but it was out misguided and ill-judged compassion, based not on reasoned judgment, but on gut instinct and blind ignorance. She murdered her own son out of a misplaced sense of pity.

Thomas Inglis was in a vegetative state having fallen out of an ambulance following a pub fight. He could not communicate with anyone or even move. Obviously this is a thoroughly unpleasant way of living, indeed it barely represents a life at all, but it was not permanent. His condition was not terminal, despite what his mother chose to believe. It is another case altogether to be in a vegetative state from which one can never recover, and, while this explains Mrs Inglis’ actions, it does not make them any more excusable. Thomas Inglis had a poor quality of life, but he would recover and potentially lead a pretty normal life. He was robbed of this opportunity by his mother, claiming to be acting in his best interest.

Inglis was wrong to do as she did and should be punished accordingly. Killing someone without their consent, even out of compassion, is murder. One cannot take the life of another into one’s own hands, no matter the circumstances. She may not be guilty of malicious intent, but she is guilty of acting purely out of passion and instinct, not reasoned consideration. Her unthinking, ill-judged actions cost her son his life; a life which could have gone on for many years had it not been cut short.

Contrast this with Mrs Gilderdale’s actions. Her daughter had repeatedly expressed the desire to die and had even attempted suicide in the past. She was entirely conscious and capable of making a decision about her own life. Her ME had caused her great suffering over 17 years, through which her mother had given her constant support. She had begged her not to take her life, but when it became apparent that Lynn was desperate to end the pain, she reluctantly conceded to help her. She acted out of the same compassion and love as Mrs Inglis, but she did it with reluctance and only with the consent of her daughter.

Both of these cases are tragic, but in one the right thing was done and in the other, the wrong. The law must make a distinction between these cases and has done. Mrs Gilderdale is innocent of any immoral act, and the ruling reflects this, Mrs Inglis is guilty of murder and her sentence reflects this. While Euthanasia should not be legislated against, killing someone without their consent must be.

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