Tuesday 26 January 2010

Assisted suicide case shows pitfalls of pseudo-compassion

This morning SPUC issued a statement expressing concern at the outcome of the case of Lynn Gilderdale whose mother was acquitted of helping to kill her. ( Lynn was diagnosed with chronic fatigue disorder at 14 and said that she decided she wanted to die after being ill for many years.)

I commented:
"The jury's verdict and the judge's comments appear to have disturbing implications for vulnerable, disabled and seriously ill people. Laws against assisted suicide are actually there to protect such vulnerable people. We shall be studying this sad and worrying case carefully with a view to doing all in our power to step up our educational and political campaign on the need to explain and maintain the current legislation in this area.”
Mrs Kay Gilderdale was acquitted of the charge of attempted murder after admitting to assisting her 31 year old daughter’s suicide “by giving her sleeping pills, antidepressants and injecting air into her veins … after her daughter [Lynn] had injected herself with morphine”.

The media treatment of this story has been dominated by anti-life propaganda. For example, The Daily Telegraph, in nearly three pages of coverage sympathetic to Kay Gilderdale – pages one, two and three – devoted 30 words to presenting a pro-life perspective.

Media hero of the day is High Court Judge, Mr Justice Bean, who criticised the prosecution for pursuing the charge of attempted murder and who paid tribute to the jury’s “common sense, decency and humanity” for acquitting Kay Gilderdale of attempted murder of her daughter.

This case highlights the pitfalls of “pseudo-compassion”, the theme of a timely article entitled “The Pitfalls of Compassion” published this week by Monsignor Michael Schooyans, Professor Emeritus at the University of Louvain.

Monsignor Schooyans explains that compassion has traditionally been understood as an expression of human solidarity in suffering. To be compassionate has been thought to show understanding, to sympathize or to comfort. However, “in cases of abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide which appear in the news, compassion is frequently invoked to 'justify the act'". As killing somebody is not self-evidently compassionate, in the same way that comforting them is, compassionate intentions have to be presented as the justification for killing.

The Gilderdale case is an example of “compassion” being used as a justification for killing, rather than the expression of care towards another. Schooyans explains that coupled with judgments on the quality of life of human beings, this pseudo-compassion becomes the vehicle by which the most vulnerable in society are disposed of. Schooyans uses the example of an unborn child with disabilities to explain how people can be “ethically” exterminated. By claiming that the only way to help such children is by terminating their lives, society has created a moral principle whereby a child will be killed out of compassion. Likewise with Lynn Gilderdale the jury considered it justified for her mother to kill her on the “compassionate” grounds that it was the best way to relieve her daughter of her suffering.

Monsignor Schooyans explains that this brand of ethics goes on to impose its framework upon society. In the case of abortion it is claimed that it is contrary to compassion to impose the “insupportable ‘burden’” of pregnancy upon women. The act of abortion then is justified by its ‘compassion’ toward both mother and child and those who object to such an action thereby become opponents of “compassion”.

Schooyans explains, compassion has been further “manipulated” as a tool of congratulation. This is seen in the demand by society to sympathise with and applaud those doctors who
“‘for the good’ of the child or its mother take the ‘courageous’ decision to go ahead with an abortion”.
Such congratulation for what Schooyans dubs as “bogus compassion” has terrifying consequences. Schooyans cites the 1962 case in Belgium where a woman who murdered her child who had been born with “serious malformations” due to her having taken thalidomide, was acquitted by the Belgian court to “hearty applause from the public.”

The same “bogus compassion” is at operation and imposes its framework in the Gilderdale case. A false understanding of the notion of compassion has led a mother to kill her daughter, believing that it was the compassionate thing to do. This "compassion" has been manipulated by the judge as a tool of congratulation in his remarks to the jury - with the clear implication that those who might oppose the jury's decision are the opponents of compassion.

We must stand firm for true compassion. Last week Margo MacDonald launched her End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill in the Scottish Parliament. Alison Davis of No Less Human, a division of SPUC, who lives with severe spina bifida and other debilitating conditions that have brought her to the brink of suicide in the past, told the Scottish media:
"Sometimes what desperate people, disabled or not, need is to be given hope. What they definitely don't need is to be told they are right to feel so unhappy and that they would be better off dead. This is simply the moral equivalent of the practical example of seeing a person about to jump off a high bridge and giving them a push."

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