Hazel McHaffie

parental consent

Could I? Would I? Should I?

With all my talk of books lately you might well have forgotten that my blog is also about ethical issues. So, something a little more challenging this week.

QuestioningYou’ve probably heard on the news that a teenager has just become the first to be helped to die by doctors in Belgium, a country that lifted their age restrictions on assisted dying two years ago. This girl was 17 years old and terminally ill. Let’s stop and contemplate that for a moment. 17 years old … on the cusp of life. Terminally ill … a tragedy in itself. Now dead … hard to even contemplate the agony wrapped up in that reality. Sends shivers down your spine just thinking about it, doesn’t it?

Belgium legalised assisted death for adults as long ago as 2002. And in 2014 it became the only country* in the world that allows a child of any age to choose doctor-assisted death provided they have parental permission. There are strict criteria; of course there are. The minor must be terminally ill, fully and rationally understand the difference between life and death, face unbearable physical suffering that can’t be alleviated, and have made repeated requests to die. Two doctors, one of whom must be a psychiatrist, must give their approval.
(*The Netherlands permits children to have an assisted death but requires them to be aged 12 or over.)

How do you feel about this ruling?

Would you allow your child to choose to die?

But hang on a minute. Let’s not rush to judgement without properly assimilating the facts. This is not some wilful youngster throwing a hissy fit and whining about a passing ache. This is a wise-beyond-their-years person who’s known extreme and unremitting pain, who knows he/she’s not going to survive this illness. Given these circumstances, could you bear to stand by? Listening to the agonising screams? Seeing the appeal in the eyes? Watching the dying process be strung out, knowing … knowing there’s a way out, a legal option? Wouldn’t you be begging someone to do something … anything?

An opinion poll taken a few months before the law changed to allow children this choice, suggested that 75% of Belgians supported it. Understandably many churchmen, especially those of the Roman Catholic church, opposed it. OK, we know they have strong opinions and beliefs about the sanctity of life. But so too did many doctors. What does this say? They after all are the ones who care for these tragic families, make decisions about treatment, convey the bad news, feel their own powerlessness. This isn’t theoretical for them; they actually stand at those bedsides, see the agony up close and personal.

Could it be that the doctors baulk at a law that allows the life of the child to be ended actively, because they are the very people who’d be asked to actually do the deed? And they are trained to cure, not to kill. It’s so much easier for a lay person to say, ‘Oh yes, a child shouldn’t suffer unbearably; you should help them to die with dignity,’ when they know they will not be the ones called upon to inject that lethal drug.

So, maybe the question ought to be: Would you be willing to end that life yourself? And if not, is it hypocritical to approve of a law allowing assisted dying?

If so, how many of us are guilty as charged?

I’m ridiculously squeamish. I struggle to kill an insect or an arachnoid, preferring to capture them and return them to the wild. There’s something very, very special about life, especially a human life. And I’m absolutely certain I could not be actively involved in the death of a child … or … am I? Because the alternative appalls me. What right have I to insist a child endures terrible suffering? I’m not at all sure I could stand by and not do something to help if it were in my power. Maybe, just maybe, there are certain circumstances where I might feel compelled to forfeit my own comfort, my own preferences, even possibly my own principles, and put the child and his/her interests first. Whether or not I would actually do the deed is unknown. I’ve never been tested.

We haven’t come close to approving assisted dying for adults in this country yet, never mind for children. The majority of – not all – doctors and politicians oppose a change in the law. But we all ought to thoroughly consider the options and consequences nevertheless. I’m not, thank God, facing this devastating dilemma at this precise moment. You might not be. But there are too many families for whom this is no hypothetical question; this is their ongoing living nightmare. What kind of a society do we want for them?

As the late Sheila Bloom, Chief Executive of the Institute of Global Ethics once said, ‘It isn’t about knowing right from wrong – we can all do that. It’s often about choosing one right over another and finding good reasons for it.’ Or we might add, sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils.

Sobering questions for an autumnal Thursday morning, huh?


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Malta – holiday destination and ethical hotspot

Phew, I’ve just this evening returned from eleven nights on the island of Malta. Which is why my blog post is late this week. We’ve been on the return journey since the equivalent of 4.45 am so excuse lack of brio.

Anyway, I’ll give it a whirl. There I was, basking in temperatures in the twenties, letting my imagination run riot, happily scribbling a novel in my head. The amazingly history of Malta offers a richly colourful context, so I had this as my basic tapestry. Good start. My characters were soon escaping down the mysterious winding streets between these lovely honey-coloured stone walls … honey coloured stoneracing up the endless flights of steps …stepped streetscommandeering a passing horse-drawn carriage …passing carriagesdodging pursuers in the night-time shrubbery …statues at nightfleeing across the incredible turquoise Mediterranean Sea …The blue seaAnd then … ahah! In gift shops and airports and bookstores what did I find? Rows of novels all set in Malta.novels about Malta Joanna Trollope, Nicholas Monsarrat – oh, lots of different authors have jumped on this bandwagon already. And no wonder. The whole place cries out to be written about. So no mileage there. Best to just relax and have a real holiday.

But I held one trump card. A most unusual highlight just for me. I could actually set foot on the nearby island of Gozo. And there I met a lovely lady in a Maltese lace shop (pictured below) who knew the family at the centre of a huge ethical debate some eleven years ago when I was still working at the University. A case I followed very closely.

Michaelangelo and Rina Attard’s twin daughters were born conjoined, fused at the spine and abdomen. A British surgeon heard about their condition on a visit to Malta and wanted to help. A huge debate followed his intervention. The Roman Catholic church (which is the predominant religion on Gozo) strongly opposed the babies’ separation, believing such matters were best left in the hands of God. The parents were Catholics and followed this line too. But doctors and lawyers disagreed. A high profile court case ensued. The issues revolved around whether or not it was acceptable to save the life of one child at the expense of the other; and whether it was permissible to act against the parents’ wishes.

To cut a long story short, the girls were eventually separated here in Britain at the age of three months – exactly eleven years ago this November. One twin, Rosie, died in the process, but the survivor, Gracie, went back to this tiny Maltese island with its strong religious ethic, and is apparently still doing well, her neighbour told me.Lace Shop in GozoAfter all the hours spent thinking and talking and writing about this controversy back in 2000, it was a real thrill to listen to this lady in Gozo, in this very lace shop, telling me what she thought of the decision and the church’s stance. And to be just a few roads away from where the Attard family still live. A bit like standing on holy ground!

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