Killing the sick
Published in: Daily Mail
The protracted death of the American brain damage victim Terri Schiavo is a deeply horrifying and disturbing spectacle. Twelve days ago Mrs Schiavo, who has been in a persistent vegetative state for the past 15 years, had the tubes delivering food and water to her withdrawn. Her death is now imminent.
Let us not mince words about what we are witnessing here. Quite apart from the unedifying saga of the struggle between her parents and husband over whether she should live or die, or the drama over President Bush's intervention to force the courts to reconsider her case, the stark truth is that Mrs Schiavo is being slowly starved and dehydrated to death.
It has been said that she is being 'allowed to die'. This is nothing less than a mutilation of the language in the service of a lie. Mrs Schiavo is not being 'allowed to die', for the simple reason that before the feeding tubes were removed she was not dying. True, she was in a persistent vegetative state; but however appalling her situation was, she was nevertheless living and not dying. It was only when food and water were withdrawn that, like anyone else upon whom this might be inflicted, she started to die.
In other words, this is nothing less than a state-sponsored killing. Not only that, its form is barbaric. Would the state ever be allowed to starve a healthy person to death? Of course not. The very suggestion is abhorrent. Yet it has been sanctioned for someone who is desperately sick.
We are told that PVS sufferers feel nothing. But how does anyone know? No-one can possibly tell what they feel. In any event, food and water are the most fundamental needs of life itself. Withdrawing them is to remove the most elementary duty of care to a desperately vulnerable individual - with the express intention of killing her.
We in Britain, however, cannot look upon Mrs Schiavo's enforced death as an aberration peculiar to America. On the contrary, the same thing has been happening here on a regular basis ever since Tony Bland, the Hillsborough PVS victim, had his feeding and hydration tubes removed after a seminal ruling by the Law Lords in 1993.
The judges believed this was in Mr Bland's best interests. But it can never be in someone's best interests to kill them. And here we come to the source of the moral confusion that has gripped Britain and now America.
For what the Law Lords never accepted was the crucial difference between, on the one hand, allowing a dying person to die without pointless medical intervention, and on the other taking action with the express purpose of ending the life of someone who is not dying.
In the Bland case, the judges crossed a moral Rubicon. Since then, other PVS victims have had their feeding tubes removed. They too have therefore been killed with the express permission of the courts.
As a result of a compromise hammered out between Government and objectors, the Mental Capacity Bill -going through its final stages in the Commons next week - appears to introduce a degree of uncertainty into the legality of this procedure by prohibiting any action 'motivated by the desire to bring about someone's death'. But this wording is ambiguous enough to allow our morally muddled judges to continue to uphold killing as a legitimate medical procedure - and even more horrifyingly, to extend it to people suffering from dementia, or strokes.
What's more, because starving someone to death causes such revulsion, people inevitably will begin to say it would be more humane to give them a lethal injection instead. But then, we appear to be sliding down the wider medical ethical slopes with terrifying speed.
Just look at the comments this week by Professor Bob Edwards, who with Patrick Steptoe pioneered in-vitro fertilisation with the birth of the very first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. Professor Edwards said he saw nothing wrong in human cloning. He was not even just talking about 'therapeutic' cloning, whose purpose is merely to grow cells to cure disease. He was actually supporting the idea of cloning a human baby. Once this procedure was shown to be safe, he said, there would be no significant ethical barrier.
This was an astonishing position for a responsible scientist to take. For reproductive cloning should strike us all as profoundly dehumanising, denying the uniqueness and individuality of every human being and opening up the terrifying prospect of the manipulation of human identity.
Professor Edwards's comments surely revealed the arrogant moral blindness of a scientist who has lost touch with the essence of what makes us human - our moral sense, which derives from respect for human life. As a result, he jeered at the revulsion against cloning a baby as 'misguided and extreme'.
Thus morality is turned completely on its head, and human existence is reduced to a bundle of cells under a microscope, to be grown, manipulated or destroyed with no more concern than grafting a species of tomato onto a vine.
This process of dehumanisation was set in train when Steptoe and Edwards first opened Pandora's box of IVF tricks. Those who warned at the time that this would inevitably lead us into an ethical wasteland were dismissed as doom-laden Cassandras with over-fertile imaginations.
But just look at what has happened since. IVF doctors are creating babies for families without fathers. Women old enough to be grandmothers are now giving birth. With the biological link between conception and birth broken, surrogate motherhood has become a cottage industry.
'Spare' embryos are routinely created and destroyed as part of the IVF process. And now the Commons Science and Technology Committee - in a report which five of its ten members refused to back - has said parents can choose the sex of their IVF embryos and destroy those of the 'wrong' sex; and furthermore, that the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos should be allowed for medical research, as long as they are destroyed after 14 days, and the ban on reproductive cloning should be reconsidered.
As the frontiers of medical science get pushed ever forwards, our society's attitudes seem to become more and more callous. Any residual moral squeamishness is fast disappearing. Morality has been transformed into a code for medical science to give everyone what they want - with specious reasoning to disguise gross selfishness and irresponsibility as the alleviation of suffering. In Britain, it seems, nothing is to be allowed to stop this march of scientific brutalisation. Last month, the United Nations called for a complete ban on all forms of cloning. But Britain has said it will defy this ruling by continuing to allow 'therapeutic' cloning - a spurious distinction, since even this involves the creation of a very early embryo.
The first injunction of medicine's ethical codes is 'do no harm'. By any normal standards, taking someone's life is to do them terminal harm.
Killing can never be a therapeutic procedure. The fact that it is now considered to be so shows how badly our society has become degraded, sliding down the slippery slope from the alleviation of suffering all the way to the destruction of respect for human life itself.