Hazel McHaffie

An Easeful Death

Baroness Mary Warnock

It’s almost eleven years since I shared a platform with Baroness Mary Warnock, but I’ve never forgotten it. We’d both just published books about assisted dying: hers, An Easeful Death (with Dr Elisabeth MacDonald); mine, Right to Die, and we were appearing together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

She was already very well known, an established and influential figure in the world of philosophy, and author of The Warnock Report on Human Fertility and Embryology, an outspoken and at times rather intimidating person, who had strong opinions of her own. I recall she wasn’t too impressed when I questioned her statement that assisted death was not killing, and dismissed my quibble out of hand. She was sitting in her philosopher’s ivory tower well away from human reality; I was speaking from the viewpoint of a clinician at the sharp end.

Though known for her sharp mind and fearless debating, in great demand for committee work, she was widely criticised for being an ‘instant expert’, for having no truck with those who held strong immovable moral principles, for voicing shockingly derogatory comments based on social class and personal prejudice. Her certainty that she was always right stemmed from her childhood and sense of personal superiority. ‘In my mother’s family,‘ she said, ‘we were brought up to believe we were the best; there was simply no doubt about it and that sort of conviction resists evidence.’ I confess I caved in more than once in the face of her dogmatic assertions, even though in my heart of hearts I disagreed strongly. Somehow her reputation and self-confidence left scant room for challenge, especially from people as far down the food-chain as me!

One of the most outrageous statements she made was, ‘If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the National Health Service’. She advocated encouraging such people to end their own lives to avoid being ‘a burden‘. To my shame I never did summon the courage to take her to task on that, though I’ve spent years working alongside people with dementia and wholeheartedly supporting efforts to enrich rather than end their lives.

Having said all that, I was touched by her generosity in endorsing my own writing. Emboldened by our brief acquaintance and pleasant exchanges, I rather trepidatiously sent her the draft of my novel, Saving Sebastian, which overlapped with her interest in genetics and embryology, and she was kind enough to endorse it warmly:
‘Problems in medical ethics are not just for doctors but for everyone,’ she wrote. ‘Hazel McHaffie has found a way to bring them before a wide public. You are gripped from the very beginning. but as you turn the pages, you are compelled to think about the issues. It is an excellent formula.’
I forgave her much!

She was made a DBE in 1984, a life peer in 1985, a Companion of Honour in 2017. The last time I saw her in the flesh she was a much diminished figure, so hard of hearing she missed much of what was said, and at times her comments fell like stones into a pond; sad to witness. She died this week, on March 20, aged 94, after a fall, a richly decorated though hugely controversial figure. Perhaps, in the world of medical ethics at least, we need such characters to provoke discussion and sharpen our own opinions.

 

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