In the headlines recently was 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 brain-damaged 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that the only legal way of allowing her son to die was an application to the High Court for Tom’s food and water to be withdrawn, Frances Inglis decided to take action on her own.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 in those terrible circumstances, 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 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. Allowing this would open the door to all kinds of unacceptable acts, from parents killing their children with Down’s syndrome to relatives deciding that life had become a burden to their rich aunt who needed palliative care, and that it was time to relieve her from it (and get the inheritance). Maybe the law could not punish such acts while absolving people like Frances Inglis; maybe, then, a prison sentence was justified in her case, 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.
Originally posted at the University of Oxford's Practical Ethics blog