Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Let Him Die, Let Him Die, Let Him Die

by Joshua Surtees

Last week I was shocked to read about a mother who had been sentenced to life in prison for killing her son. Not shocked in the way you might think. Shocked because she should never have been punished for her crime.

Frances Inglis, 57, from Essex was found guilty of murdering her severely disabled 22 yr old son with a lethal overdose of heroin. Her son, Tom, sustained permanent brain injuries in an accident in 2007 which left him paralysed, unable to speak and totally dependant on 24hr care in a care home.

Under High Court legislation, she would have been legally entitled to apply for a court order allowing her son’s food and water to be withheld – essentially allowing him to die very slowly of starvation. Starving a permanently disabled or terminally ill patient by removing their feeding tubes is considered legal in Britain. Yet, ending their life painlessly with a shot of heroin is seen as murder.

In almost complete contrast, a few days later another mother, on trial for assisting her long-term ME daughter to commit suicide was acquitted by a judge and the Crown Prosecution Service criticised for even bringing the case to court.

The difference here, in the eyes of the law, was that Lynn Gilderdale, aged 31, bedridden and suicidal after 17 years living with ME(chronic fatigue syndrome), had made it clear to her mother she wanted to die and had previously attempted suicide. Her mother Lynn Gilderdale administered lethal injections of painkillers to her daughter and she died as per her wishes. After the jury had reached a unanimous not guilty verdict, Judge Bean went on to describe Mrs Gilderdale thus: "There is no dispute that you were a caring and loving mother and that you considered that you were acting in the best interests of your daughter."

What kind of legal system are we operating under where such polarisation can exist in two extremely similar cases? One in which a mother kills her sick daughter and is called “loving and caring” while another kills her brain damaged son and is told by the judge "you cannot take the law into your own hands and you cannot take away life”.

This is quite frankly ludicrous and an immediate review of the right to die laws must surely be invigorated by these cases. The defining point here is of course that Tom Inglis, mute and only able to communicate by squeezing his mother’s hand was not able to verbalise his wish to die. His mother knew he wanted to die. She knew that she would want to die in such a situation. In all honesty everybody would wish to die in such a situation. Frances Inglis had the full support of her family in her actions, she was supported by Tom’s girlfriends and she almost certainly had the full support of the son that she killed. But we will never know that because it cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt that he wished to die.

Meanwhile, Martin Amis, never shy of provoking controversy waded into the ongoing debate on euthanasia with a staggeringly insensitive rant  in which the phrase “euthanasia booth” was mentioned.

A “booth” Mr Amis? A fucking “booth”?? A booth is found in a local Wetherspoon’s or Nando’s. A booth may be found on a seaside pier or fairground attraction. A booth may be used to house a telephone or perhaps a secret item or artefact. A booth may be used (in Amsterdam) to have a quick secretive wank. A booth is a place somebody sojourns to. But, the last time I checked, the word ‘booth’ is not an adequate description of a place where somebody goes to die. The ongoing debate calls for dignified utterances, sensitivity, understanding and compassion. It’s not really a place for crudity or crass jokes. This is not Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge.

Leaving the ill advised misattribution of the word booth to one side for the moment, Amis actually made some very relevant points about the fact that people as individuals should have the right to die when they want to die. They should not be forced to go on enduring a life they no longer gain any pleasure or satisfaction from, and which in actual fact brings them a lot of pain; whether in physical or emotional form. In short, Amis supports individuals’ rights to euthanasia.

He also made a salient point that is presumably shared by many, though in this instance laced with dark humour. "Frankly” said Amis “I can't think of any reason for prolonging life once the mind goes. You are without dignity then. Awareness of loss is gone, the track is gone. You don't know the day you've spent watching Teletubbies; it just vanished."

My Nan, for as long as I can remember, has always said almost as a mantra “oh Joshy, when I’m old and can’t look after myself, don’t let me carry on living”. Now, granted, my Nan is a fairly morbid character when it comes to the topic of aging and dying. But she speaks from a position of knowledge and experience. For 25 years she worked as the sole warden at an old people’s home, caring tirelessly and dutifully, visiting each and every person every morning and afternoon, arranging their meals and their entertainment. Some of these old people were very old. Many of them were never visited by their families. Some of them had terminal illnesses, some of them had no control over their bladders or bowels, some of them wanted to die in their sleep as quickly as possible. They would tell my Nan this. She saw and heard at first hand the things Martin Amis refers to; the fact that some people, in a very real sense, want to die. Not all of them of course. Some of them were happy to sit all day watching daytime television, chatting nonsense to each other and sucking Everton mints. And that’s a thing to be celebrated. To continue enjoying life into old age is a wonderful thing. But many people don’t. And many people cease enjoying life long before they are old.

It seems that, at times, the law runs almost parallel to the Christian fundamentalist view of the right to life and that all human life must be preserved as a duty to God. I find this a selfish point of view, and a selfish interpretation of the law.

There have been many many cases of assisted suicide in recent times. But as well as successful applications, there have also been applications to go to Dignitas in Switzerland to die that have been refused. Are we living in a fair and democratic society when a person who wishes to die can be refused that wish?

To end, these are some of the things the Tom Inglis case, and many others like his, got me thinking about. Should his mother have let him die at all? Who should have the right to make the decision? Doctors, lawyers or his own mother? And when Frances Inglis did decide he should die, should it have been slow and undignified over a period of days or weeks from food deprivation? Or was she right to inject him with heroin? In her own words, sending him “to heaven rather than hell on earth”.

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