Strange Mercy

By Jim McVeagh 26/01/2010


The Herald carries a fairly level-headed article (from the Independent) on the differing verdicts in the case of two separate “mercy killings” in the UK. I say level-headed because it actually does explore the reasoning behind the difference in verdict and vaguely explore the problems associated with strong mandatory sentences. One woman killed her 31 year old daughter who was suffering from MS since age 14 years. She was found to be not guilty of murder and guilty of assisted suicide, which carries a much lighter sentence. The other woman killed her 21 year old son who was severely brain-damaged but not, I stress, in a persistent vegetative state. She was found guilty of murder. The difference chiefly boiled down to the fact that the daughter was mentally capable and had pleaded with her mother to help her commit suicide. The son was not mentally competent to make that decision, so his mother acted unilaterally.

I have no issues with the second verdict but the British law allows only maximum sentencing for murder. As this lady is hardly likely to be a danger to others and there are substantial mitigating circumstance that will be ignored, the sentence will be wildly inappropriate. This is precisely why I am not in favour of strong mandatory sentencing for murder and attempted murder now that the defense of provocation is to go. Without the possibility of reducing a sentence in mitigation, we will end up with hideous travesties of justice, such as beaten women jailed for life for the murder of their abusive husbands. I prefer a good range of sentencing but a strong hand (independent of politics) upon the judges to limit the kind of wet bus ticket sentences we have seen recently.

The first verdict troubles me greatly. I have enormous sympathy for this lady and for her daughter. Multiple Sclerosis is a truly awful disease that causes progressive debilitation, weakness and chronic pain in the patient. But, as I have argued in a number of recent posts on Euthanasia, the person requesting assisted suicide is highly likely to be depressed and therefore in need of treatment, not death. The idea of assisted suicide should then be anathema to any doctor who follows hippocratic ethics. It is also highly unlikely that a parent could have the skill set to exclude a depressive illness and retain sufficient composure to make a reasoned clinical judgement on the issue. I most certainly could not do it. I therefore think the idea of “assisted suicide” is made plausible in the legal system, and in the eyes of the public, only because they do not understand the complexities of the situation. We maintain a myth of “mercy” killing, purely because we do not see the alternatives that may, in fact, make life bearable and even sweet for a patient again. Granted, these alternatives may not actually exist. But they need to be sought for in a reasoned and considered manner, not in the despair of a particularly bad day.

I am acutely conscious that sometimes my colleagues and I are singularly useless in assisting suffering patients to seek other solutions besides death. This does not make murder right. Nor does it mean that “mercy killing” or  ”assisted suicide” is somehow one step down from murder. By all means let us show mercy to those who resort to murder for reasons that are both understandable and non-malignant. But let us not dress it up as anything less than the “killing of another person , not for the purpose of self defense” – murder in anyone’s book. To do anything else is to devalue life.

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Related posts:

  1. Euthanasia (Part 1)
  2. Death With Dignity
  3. Another Strange Verdict