A N Wilson: Mercy killing is not a crime – it is a brave and selfless act of love

Those who help relatives die need our support, not condemnation, says a writer who regrets not helping his dying mother out of her agony

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When the jury announced a verdict of guilty upon Frances Inglis last week, people shouted in anger from the public gallery, "Shame on you". If I had been there, I too would have wanted to shout with rage and scorn that a brave woman, caught in an impossibly tragic situation, should have been treated like a common criminal – indeed, condemned as a murderer.

Frances Inglis, aged 57, killed her son Tom, aged 22. He had been in a vegetative state for several months, having fallen from an ambulance and hit his head on the pavement. He was entirely helpless, and as she sat beside him she could see nothing but despair in his eyes. He was only able to communicate by blinking or by squeezing his hand. There was no hope of his ever recovering, let alone living life and living it more abundantly.

His brave mother, who is studying for a nursing diploma, tried to kill him by the injection of pure heroin. A different fatal dose was the method by which George V's doctor Lord Dawson administered a mercy killing to the King-Emperor in 1936 before announcing that "the King's life is moving peacefully towards its close". A nurse friend of mine who used to work at a London hospital told me that in her younger days, during the 1970s, the ward sister kept something known as "the mixture" in a syringe. It was a mixture of heroin and gin. In hopeless cases, when the obviously caring thing to do was to help a patient to die, she or one of her nursing colleagues would administer this dose into the jugular and thereby release a fellow human being from avoidable suffering. As nurses they were committed to giving patients the best possible care, and that sometimes meant helping wretched patients out of their misery. Good nursing does not, emphatically not, mean keeping patients bodily alive when all hope is gone and their bodies have simply become instruments of torture to them and to their families as they sit beside the bed watching them suffer.

Yet Frances Inglis was arrested for attempting to perform this merciful act on her son and was cautioned. With tremendous bravery she did not give up, even though she was fully aware of the risk that she was undertaking. She went back to the nursing home armed with another syringe, she lied her way into his room and, when she was alone with him, she injected him. "I held him and I told him I loved him. I told him everything was going to be fine, that he will be fine. I hoped he had died. He was very peaceful."

The jury found her guilty of murder and the judge sentenced her to life – a minimum of nine years in prison. Judge Brian Barker was telling no more than the simple truth when he said, "There was no concept in law of mercy killing .... You knew the consequences".

But he also said, "You knew you were breaking society's conventions." And here the judge was surely completely wrong as my two examples show: the big London teaching hospital regularly administered mercy killings until a generation ago and George V's doctor helped the old man out of this world when it was clear that he was dying. In asking for a change in the law, and a sensible approach to mercy killing, we are not asking for an innovation. We are merely asking that we should be allowed to revert to the sensible and merciful practices of earlier generations before doctors and nurses were forced, by draconian laws, to risk prosecution for murder if they merely did what any caring person would naturally desire.

When I was a teacher, I remember the school chaplain telling the boys what it was like to be an army padre on the D-Day Normandy beaches. Some pious person wondered if he went round offering to pray with the dying. Yes, was the answer, "but I also kept a loaded revolver in my pocket and if the agony of the young man was too much, I would end the prayers by shooting him through the temple".

It is true that the law has no concept of the mercy killing. But we, as people – we, as a society – very much do have such a concept. And we always have had such a concept. Indeed, not to have the concept of mercy killing is not to have the concept of mercy.

I salute the courage and the love of this mother who has been brought before the court as if she were a criminal. Those of us who have not had to face such horrors should not sit in judgement upon them. And nor should our society in the form of the law. If, as the learned judge said this week, the law has no concept of a mercy killing, then it is about time that it acquired such a concept.

We all know that the tragic case of Frances Inglis is not unique. Almost every week some terrible case arises in which a distraught mother, or husband or grown-up (even elderly) child of a sufferer is forced to add to their torment by criminal prosecution.

Of course, anyone can see the dangers if the law were altered. In the past, when we lived much more happily with double standards and with irony generally, it was possible for everyone to turn a blind eye when the kindly nurse, doctor, priest or carer finished off a patient whose body stubbornly refused to die.

To change the law would be actually to allow wilful killing. And what is to stop an actual murderer inventing some cock-and-bull story in which their victim implored to be put out of their agony? This objection sounds very strong, but in reality, it lacks any kind of psychological plausibility. In the sort of cases which have been in our minds recently, no one was in any doubt who administered the fateful overdose. But nor could any but the most obtuse fail to see that a woman like Frances Inglis acted with the purest and most loving of motives – to spare her child suffering. If a good police officer or a good prosecuting counsel could not distinguish between tragic cases of this kind and cases of malicious murder, then they would surely be in the wrong profession. The differences are palpable and obvious.

The only objections which would carry weight in these cases are supposedly religious ones. Life, it might be argued, is a gift from God and we are not permitted to take away a gift which has been bestowed from above. This argument seems fine if you are applying it to yourself. You could carry a card, similar to a kidney donor card, which made it clear that you wanted, in whatever circumstances, the religious privilege of lying in a vegetative state, or screaming your way through the last two or three avoidable weeks of a death by cancer. That would be your choice.

By what right do you impose this idea on other people? That is what puzzles me. How dare other people – whether they speak for the Church or the Law or some perverted sense of what constitutes "life" – tell Frances Inglis that she did wrong ?

Till the day I die, I shall reproach myself that I did not somehow kill my poor beloved mother when, debilitated by every possible frailty, she slithered into the decrepitude of her last two years. The fiercely independent, punctiliously clean, hyperactive woman became a muddled bundle of pain, trapped by double incontinence and immobility, weighing less than five stone. Each time pneumonia came, she was brought back from the brink by some wretched antibiotic and forced to resume the half-life and indignity which she so hated.

We must change the law. In the past, they used to hang criminals. They stopped doing so when enough people in the country expressed their revulsion. They no longer wanted to go on living in a country which punished crime in this grotesque manner. I believe a similar crisis point has been reached over mercy killing.

The law should allow suicides, assisted suicides and actual mercy killings in such tragic cases as we have seen this week. When unscrupulous murderers try to fool the police and the courts – and there will be such hard cases – it is the job of the courts and the police to expose the crime. But we will no longer be living in a society that has ceased to be merciful to its dying. In the past, as I stated earlier, there were many cases of mercy killings by the medical profession, and by the clergy, to which a blind eye was turned. Now, with such unhappy examples as Dr Harold Shipman before us, everyone is terrified of prosecution. But do we really live in a society which is so morally illiterate that we can not distinguish between loving mothers and psychopaths?

If Tom Inglis had been starved to death and agonisingly deprived of water until he died of thirst and dehydration, that act of cruelty would have been within the law. Because his mother loved him, and was prepared to risk her life for his, she is being punished. I hate living in a society where the law is as much of an ass as this. For God's sake, let us change the law.

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