October 12, 2010

Put yourself in the shoes of Dr Sean Davison. His 85 year-old mother, Patricia, was dying in agony from cancer. She was so desperate to put an end to her suffering that she had attempted suicide by means of starvation. Her son allegedly gave her a solution of crushed morphine tablets, telling her that if she drank it it would end her life. She drank and died, and now Sean Davison faces a charge of attempted murder for doing what most loving sons would do in similar circumstances.

Dr Sean Davison

I find it puzzling that the charge should be attempted murder rather than murder—his mother did, after all, die. But that isn’t really the point. The point is whether or not the state should intervene at all in cases such as this one.

There are two aspects that need to be considered: legal and moral. The state has a duty of protection towards its citizens, most especially the poor or the weak who are not able adequately to protect themselves, so the law cannot just shrug its shoulders and say, OK, then, your Mum’s got a tummy ache so feel free to blow her head off. But that isn’t what happened here. His mother took the morphine herself, voluntarily, after having had it pointed out to her explicitly that it would cause her death. (It should be stated at this juncture that Patricia Davison was herself a medical doctor.) A distinction is made between active and passive euthanasia; passive euthanasia being the withholding of treatment in the knowledge that that might result in death, and active euthanasia being a deliberate act, such as the administration of a poison, that results in death. In my view this case was neither because Sean Davison did not administer the morphine, he merely provided it.

I don’t think any sane person would argue that it is moral to force a person to endure suffering unnecessarily; there aren’t any rational reasons for taking that position. Before you cry that religious leaders take precisely that position, I urge you to reread the preceding sentence. I said sane and rational; priests, rabbis, imams and the other assorted riff-raff of the mystical realms are neither sane nor rational, and they know nothing of morality; they slavishly follow the dogma set out centuries ago by uneducated peasants even more ignorant than they are themselves. Indeed, if a pet animal contracts a dread disease we say it is “humane” to put an end to its suffering, but a human is supposed to linger for as long as possible and die in agony without any dignity whatsoever. The reason underlying the religious opposition to euthanasia is that they believe that people do not own their own lives; they are the property of some supernatural slave-master in the sky.

I take the opposite view, that we are each the ultimate arbiters of what is best for us, and we may do with our lives whatever we wish, and that includes choosing to end our lives if they become unbearable. The right to life is topmost in the hierarchy of rights enshrined in the constitutions of all enlightened states, which means the state should go to extraordinary lengths to prevent a person’s life being taken against their will (murder), but the other side of that coin is that a person’s right to take his own life should be as defended with equal vigour.

These events took place in New Zealand which is rumoured to be fairly civilized, the barbaric antics of its rugby players notwithstanding. (I don’t actually believe it exists, I’ve thought of it as a place like Lilliput: misty, charming, but wholly imagined.) The judge in this case should take into account the defendant’s motive in providing the poison to his mother. If he decides that it was to put an end to unbearable suffering, and was done in accordance with the wishes of the deceased, then he must acquit Davison because a moral act should not be punished even if it is against the law; instead the law should be amended to bring it into line with morality.

In that case Sean Davison should be released to return to his family as soon as possible.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License