Killing is killing – or is it?

In the
headlines this week is
the tragic story of Frances Inglis, whom a jury at the Old Bailey found guilty of murdering her disabled son Tom
and sentenced to nine years in jail. Tom Inglis had been left severely
braindamaged after falling from a moving ambulance in 2007, throwing his mother
in a state of deep distress. She refused to believe an (apparently isolated)
encouraging prognosis from one of the doctors at the hospital, and concluded
that it was her duty to release her son from the
“living hell” in which he found himself. Horrified on learning that the only legal way of
allowing her son to die was an application to the High Court for Tom’s food and
water to be withdrawn, Frances Inglis decided to take action on her own. After
a first unsuccessful attempt 14 months earlier, she took her son’s life by
injecting him with a lethal dose of heroin in November 2008.

 

With all
due respect to Frances Inglis and her family,
it has to be acknowledged that her decisions were made in a state of extreme
emotional turmoil which might have led her to hold mistaken beliefs. First, she
assumed, against the assurances of the medical staff and apparently without
evidence, that her son was suffering terribly under their care. Secondly, as
patients from whom food and water is withheld are normally sedated beforehand,
it isn’t clear that such a procedure must lead to a painful death, as believed
by the Inglis family. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the verdict that was
passed in this sad case involved at least two important moral errors.

 

The first
error is the fact that in deciding on the sentence, hardly any consideration
seems to have been paid to what Tom’s future prospects were, in light of the
available evidence. Obviously it makes a big ethical difference whether there was a good chance that Tom would recover enough to eventually
“run his own business”,
as was suggested by one of the doctors, or whether all that could be expected
for him was a condition (such as PVS) which many of us would judge incompatible with a life
worth living – in which case his mother’s claim to know that Tom would not have
wanted to go on living would appear much more credible. Instead, the rigid and
simplistic principle that
killing is killing and that the person who kills deserves a life sentence regardless of her
intentions and the outlook of the person killed, prevailed.

 

The
second moral error is the law’s reliance on the fallacious principle according
to which letting someone die is necessarily more acceptable from an ethical
perspective than killing that person. Even if we assume that Frances Inglis was
wrong about active euthanasia being a much more humane means of helping her son
than withdrawal of life support, it remains that actively (and painlessly) killing someone in a
permanent vegetative state is ethically no more objectionable than simply
withdrawing life support from her (at least in the absence of advance
directives opposing the former method), as both procedures involve taking
deliberate action with the expectation that death will follow for the patient.
If so, it is hard to see why the patient’s preferences or, when these are not
known, those of his close relatives regarding these procedures shouldn’t be
taken into account by the law. Had there been a legal path to active euthanasia
for her son, Frances Inglis might not have felt compelled to take the extreme
course of action she took.

 

The judge
who led the trial was right to say that citizens cannot be allowed to take the
law into their own hands. Decisions regarding whether to allow a person in a critical state to go on living or not should be made in keeping with public regulations, and cannot be left to the personal judgment of particular individuals, even the parents of the person concerned. This is why Frances Inglis probably deserved a prison sentence, even if what she did was in fact in the best interests of her son (it is hard
to pass a confident verdict on this issue merely on the basis of the evidence
available in the media) and despite the compassion that we owe to a distraught
mother. But 9 years seem disproportionate to say the least. Compare that for
instance with
the case of Jason Howard three years ago,
who crashed into a 17-year old girl with his bike, killing her, after he had
shouted “move, because I’m not stopping” and failed to do anything to prevent
the accident. In that case, strangely, the principle that “killing is killing”
did not apply: Howard wasn’t sentenced to a single day in jail – he got away
with a £2200 fine for dangerous cycling. No matter how different these two
cases might be, they make it hard not to think that changes in the law are
necessary if it is indeed justice we want to uphold.

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One Response to Killing is killing – or is it?

  • Debbie says:

    The case of Jason Howard was a disgusting example of everything that is wrong with our society and our justice system. I have sympathy for Frances Inglis, and the media coverage of the case has presented her as deluded and deranged. The sentence was clearly disproportionate.

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