Saturday, 20 August 2011

"Martin": a life worth living

Earlier this week, the media covered the case of "Martin". "Martin" is nearly completely paralysed, having some eye and head movement that, with the use of a computer, screen and voice generation software, allows him to communicate.  "Martin" is pursuing a legal case that, if successful, would allow professionals to help him kill himself without risk of prosecution. His wife, family and friends who would enjoy some protection from prosecution under current guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service have all indicated that they will not assist "Martin" in killing himself.

In the interview broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, "Martin" stated that his life was not worth living and that what he wanted to happen was death. An interview with the chief executive of the charity Scope was broadcast immediately after the interview with "Martin", the key argument of that interview being that other disabled people were concerned that, if "Martin" is successful in his court bid, they will feel very vulnerable to pressure from others to take their lives.

I have three connected reflections on this coverage of the "Martin" case.

1. "Martin" clearly feels that his life is not worth living, and stated this clearly in his interview. However, when that judgement is broadcast by "Martin" in a media interview it implicitly asks those who are listening to "Martin" to agree with his judgement and makes it very difficult to express a contrary view in the media. A careful distinction needs to be drawn. It is clear that "Martin" is living a life that is difficult, a life that is far from easy; and it is not licit for those who do not experience his particular situation to make any comment that denies this significant hardship. However, I do think that it is legitimate for us to disagree with the judgment that that serious hardship in life is equivalent to a "life not worth living", because there is a subtle but important distinction between acknowledging the hardship of a life (and being sypathetic about it) and making the additional step of judging it to be worthless. I, for one, do not want "Martin" or anyone else, particularly those caring for him, to think that I agree with his own judgement of his life as being one that is not worth living.

2. The observations of the chief executive of Scope highlight that a legal decision in favour of "Martin" is not in effect just a decision about his own individual case but a decision that then represents a possibility for every other disabled person. The legal decision is not one that just affects the freedom of an individual to have help to kill himself but one that affects the freedom of all disabled people to have help to kill themselves - and therefore it is a legal decision that affects the freedom of all carers in this regard. Put simply, it appears to be a decision about a single case but is in reality a decision that affects society as a whole. There is clearly a legal aspect to this, and the pragmatic question of how the availability of the possibility of help from professionals might well lead to an assumption in favour of that help being provided, but I think there is also an underlying ethical or moral principle. Though he is paralysed, "Martin" nevertheless lives in a society, represented immediately by his carers, family and friends, but also extending to a wider community. Decisions made by "Martin" cannot be isolated from this society as a question of "individual choice" but need to be placed within the framework of the good of that society as a whole. In other words, a legal decision should be made that is in favour of the "common good", which in consequence, is also in favour of the genuine good of the individual case.

3. What is in the "common good" will need to be based on an objective ethical judgement of the good (in a philosophical sense) of the life of the human person. It needs to be clear that, just because life is hard, it is not therefore worthless. The "pastoral moment" that accompanies this "teaching moment" is to say to someone who is seriously ill that there is nothing wrong with the fact that they need others to care for them; and to say to those who care for the sick person that there is a natural dynamic of human society that makes that caring a time of particular value.

1 comment:

Francis said...

Hi, Joe. Great to see you blogging again. I think by and large I am with you on this one. Just one point though. You write:

life not worth living", because there is a subtle but important distinction between acknowledging the hardship of a life (and being sypathetic about it) and making the additional step of judging it to be worthless.

I just wonder whether saying that 'my life is not worth living' is the same as saying it is therefore'worthless'?

I think the word 'life' may be being used in two different ways here, possibly? 'Life' in the first sentence meaning something along the lines of lifestyle/ the way I lead my life is not worth experiencing. I think it might be possible to feel that way but not mean that life in the sense of the person themself has no worth.

Just a gut feeling, though.