Friday, 23 September 2011

When a life is worth less

A man admits to smothering his wife with a pillow. What happens?
He is admittedly suffering from depression. But if the wife is fit and healthy, that would never be deemed an excuse and it is hard to imagine that he would walk free.
But if the wife is suffering from a progressive and terminal illness, then it is a different story.  Stuart Mungall walked free after claiming it was a mercy killing.

But here is the catch. The day before she was killed, the wife had told a nurse that she was "taking it in her stride". At no point had she indicated that she wanted to end her life. Stuart himself does not claim that she told him to do it. He simply says that he "saw it in her eyes".

At a time when many people are pushing for a change in the law to allow assisted dying, with one option being decisions rendered by the courts, is it any wonder that many disabled people are scared and worried? Warnings of a "slippery slope" are often dismissed as scaremongering. But how can they be when already today disabled people do not receive justice in the courts? As seen here their killers are sympathised with and let off the hook. The mere fact that she was facing a difficult illness and that he was struggling to care for her was enough for him to walk free.

If caring for his wife was so hard then more help should have been given. She should never have been left at the mercy of a man who either put his own wants and needs above hers and took her life for his own convenience or whose mental health was so impaired that her safety was at risk. The fact that this has now been tacitly legalised by the court is deeply disturbing.

The truth is that her life was regarded as less valuable than that of a non disabled person. Otherwise he would have received the same sentence as someone murdering their non disabled spouse. Depression would not normally excuse murder.

The judge praised Stuart's love and devotion in caring for his wife during her "difficult" illness. Astonishingly this appeared to therefore logically imply that he had been acting in his wife's best interests out of love, ignoring the fact that she evidently still enjoyed her life. However a mercy killing is only a mercy killing if the person dying has expressed a wish to die. It is not up to the family or others, including doctors or the courts to decide when a life is worth living. It is up to the person living it.

With assisted dying once again on the table and in view of this sort of case, can we really trust the courts to tell the difference and ensure no one is ever coerced or guilt ridden into this decision?
Will they really make sure the disabled person has received all possible support, including mental health intervention and independent social care to ensure the best possible life?
Will they even be able to recognise the worth and quality of life of a disabled person with very restrictive impairments?
Will they make sure the disabled person is not directly or indirectly being adversely influenced by their loved ones?
Or will their own biased views of what is an acceptable quality of life and an emotional view of the "sacrifice" of families and carers inevitably colour any judgment they might render?

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