Letters: Mercy killing law

Mercy-killing law denies help and companionship to the suffering
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Sir: The plausibility of the slippery-slope arguments employed by Mark Harney and John Holden in expressing concern about the assisted dying bill (letters, 18 October) depends on the most pessimistic of assumptions. The scope and pace of new discovery has seen to it that caring for the dying, like every other area of medicine, is a slippery slope, to be negotiated and policed with care.

When considering changing the law, the maintenance of mutual trust is vital. However, trust for doctors is more likely to be enhanced than undermined if the law allowed them to respect a patient's express, considered and repeated requests for help in ending intolerable suffering. There is surely a strong case for Parliament to reconsider whether society should continue to criminalise in every instance those who respond to the pleas of such a patient. Present law permits me to take my own life, if I can, but condemns me to do so alone, denied the support of those I love and trust when I may most need it. Can that be right?

In the absence of a legally sanctioned form of assistance, existing practice will not only continue to be covert and to generate guilt and subterfuge, it will also more readily conceal abuse than the carefully monitored alternative the bill offers. It doesn't require provision for assisted dying to make elderly dependents feel they have a "duty to die". The number of those who already worry about being a burden looks set to increase as more of us become dependent. The remedy for this is not to prevent those who want help and companionship in dying from getting it, but for society to ensure dependent patients get better support, and so have less cause for guilt about wanting to go on living.

The reluctance of juries to bring in murder convictions where spouses have been prosecuted for "mercy killings" suggests a large section of the public now regards such killings as acts of courageous compassion. It behoves doctors, clerics and parliamentarians to take note of this.



When the police have to shoot

Sir: While any fatal shooting by the police is a tragedy for the person killed and their family, I am at a loss to understand why it is assumed that such events should result in criminal charges against the police officers, and that there is some failure of justice if they do not (report, 21 October).

As I read the statistics and the brief case studies, it seems that over the past 12 years the police have killed fewer than three people a year, practically all of whom were presenting themselves as armed and dangerous. Once all the circumstances of the case were understood, some of them turned out not to be - but that is to employ the wisdom of hindsight, not the knowledge available to the police officers at the time.

The real lesson to be drawn is that is extremely foolish to behave as though armed and dangerous in the presence of police officers, more foolish again to brandish real or replica weapons and potentially fatal not to stop doing so when police officers instruct you to. Is that necessarily a bad thing if we wish to maintain a largely unarmed and peaceful society, mostly policed by consent by unarmed police officers?

I work in a pretty challenging corner of a big city, and have regular contact with police officers of all ranks, none of whom seem in the smallest degree gung-ho or trigger happy, and all of whom take pride in resolving the conflicts they deal with every day by the maximum use of negotiation and minimum use of force.



Sir: Your report of the decision not to prosecute Chief Inspector Sharman and PC Fagan over the tragic shooting of Harry Stanley included the allegation that I had bowed to political pressure. This is a serious allegation which needs to be categorically denied because it is entirely without foundation.

As you report, the decision not to prosecute was taken by a senior lawyer within the CPS on the advice of a very experienced QC and was reviewed and approved by the Director of Public Prosecutions. I was consulted and agreed with the decision. It was based on a consideration of the evidence, including the important forensic evidence regarding how Mr Stanley was standing at the moment he was fatally shot. Political considerations had absolutely nothing to do with this decision.

It is, and always has been, commonplace for the Attorney General of the day to be consulted or kept informed on individual prosecutions, especially when they are high-profile or difficult, as well as on prosecuting policy. In some cases Parliament has entrusted the Attorney General with the responsibility of making prosecuting decisions. But what is also commonplace is that all Attorneys General have acted independently of other ministers in making these decisions. They are not, for example, a matter for discussion in Cabinet.

The classic statement of the position was made by Attorney General Shawcross as long ago as 1951. He made it clear that, in deciding whether or not to authorise a prosecution, whilst it would be open to the Attorney to consult with any of his colleagues in the government, "the responsibility for the eventual decision rests with the Attorney General, and he is not to be put, and is not put, under pressure by his colleagues in the matter".

The death of Harry Stanley was a tragedy and I have all sympathy with his widow and family. But the decision to prosecute or not prosecute is not a political one; it is a decision taken in accordance with the law and on the evidence.



Sir: Holding the police to account when they kill people, or when people die in their custody, seems to be virtually impossible.

In part it is a matter of the multitude of institutions who have powers and responsibilities in such cases : coroners' and criminal courts, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service.

But even without this confusion, the mindset of those who operate these systems gives cause for concern. For instance, the CPS has presumed that a jury would not reasonably conclude that misconduct which resulted in death was formally gross misconduct and has therefore exonerated the two officers who shot our neighbour Harry Stanley.

In a letter you published from the Chairman of the Police Complaints Authority on 23 October 1999 he assured your readers that the doubts we had expressed in our letter to you of 15 October 1999 about the robustness of Surrey Police's approach to this case were unfounded. He assured us that things were improving, with deaths by police shooting down to 31 in the 14 years 1985 to 1999.

Six years on: 18 further people shot by the police. Up from two a year to three a year. No wonder confidence in the police and the judicial process slumps.




Funds hoarded by the Government

Sir: The Commons Public Accounts Committee has demanded that the Government get a grip on the problem of National Lottery cash "languishing in the bank" ("£2.4bn of lottery funds 'hoarded' by distributors", 18 October). Will the PAC also demand that the Government sorts out the problem of its own departments hanging on to cash which they have agreed to award to voluntary-sector agencies?

As a worker for a council for voluntary services I have encountered such problems. Agencies can be left with only three months to spend a year's funding, and government then complains that it hasn't all been spent and any subsequent awards are reduced accordingly.

We have heard complaints for years that the voluntary sector is not professional enough. The crises faced over funding delays may be part of the explanation.



Appeal for Pakistan earthquake victims

Sir: On behalf of the people of Pakistan and Kashmir as well as the Government of Pakistan, I would like to thank you and your newspaper for publishing an earthquake appeal in 12 October.

The appeal was a timely reminder that the devastation caused by the earthquake in Pakistan was unprecedented and that the task of rehabilitation would require sustained and focused efforts, as underlined by your clarion call: "This is no time for compassion fatigue."

Once again thank you very much for your initiative which, I am confident, will go a long way to provide relief to the earthquake victims.



Peaceful peoples of the desert

Sir: Robert M Sapolsky claims that living for thousands of years in deserts caused humans to develop militaristic, stratified societies ("Culture clash", 19 October).

How does he account for Aboriginal Australia where for 60,000 years society was egalitarian, family centred and without war? What about the 99.9 per cent of our ancestors who appear to have lived a relatively egalitarian hunting and gathering life in all types of environments?

Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel suggests that the spread of farming had a much greater impact on human societies than any environmental factors. Farming produces a surplus, and with this comes the temptation to steal your neighbour's crops rather than working every day to grow your own food.



Too many choices, too little time

Sir: All this diversity of choice is making my head spin ("Kelly to 'bus' poor children to school in wealthy areas", 18 October).

It was bad enough having to spend increasing amounts of time conducting consumer research on utilities in addition to the increasing plethora of traditional consumer goods to ensure that I do not get ripped off. Now we have increasing choice being force-fed to us in health, education, transport, pensions, telephone services, digital broadcasting and just about any form of human activity and relationship that is not superglued to the floor.

Meaningful choice requires adequate information and good knowledge of the available alternatives. If Tony Blair and his court of private advisers wish to load any more choice on this citizen's shoulders he is going to have to provide a living wage so I can sit at home conducting the necessary research to make those choices meaningful. I cannot afford to work full time and take realistic advantage of all this choice.



Total transparency the rule at Publicis

Sir: In articles on our decision to renounce making a formal bid for Aegis, both Jeremy Warner (Outlook, 15 October) and Saeed Shah suggest that our CEO, Maurice Lévy, failed to consult the chairman of our supervisory board, Elisabeth Badinter, about acquiring Aegis - and that she was opposed to the approach. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not only was Mme Badinter fully consulted before any approach was made to Aegis, but she fully backed M Lévy and the management board in their strategy. Relations between Mme Badinter and M Lévy and between the supervisory board and the management board have always operated on the principles of total transparency.



Any complaints? Of course not

Sir: It was reassuring to hear from General Jackson that on his recent visit to Iraq, he found no evidence of the low morale of which Ian Herbert wrote on 18 October.

His remarks remind me of my time as a National Service officer, 50 years ago, when I made my visits as Orderly Officer to the cookhouse to oversee the troops' meals. Accompanied by the Regimental Sergeant Major, the Company Sergeant Major, the Orderly Sergeant and the Cook Sergeant, I would make the ritual enquiry, "Any complaints?" That there never were any, I attributed entirely to the high standard of army food in the 1950s.



Strange days

Sir: So, the Atlantic hurricane season does not end until 31 November ("US prepares for a battering from Wilma", 20 October). Is this a result of George W's disregard for his influence on the climate or is he going to create an extra day?



'Culture' can be cruel

Sir: You report that French politicians have declared that foie gras is part of French culture (19 October). Just because something is "culture" or "tradition", does not make it right or any less cruel: slavery, hanging and bear-baiting were all at one time part of our "culture". The production of foie gras is incredibly cruel. It is just yet another form of exploitation of a weaker species which cannot defend itself from man's greed. It makes me ashamed to be human.



Brave Iraqi judge

Sir: Dave Brown's cartoon representation of the judge in Saddam Hussein's trial as Bush's puppet (20 October) is a remarkably low blow. Judge Rizgar Mohammed Amin's task has now made him a primary target for insurgent assassination, for no better reason than his readiness to undertake one of the few good things to come out of the Iraq conflict: Saddam's overdue encounter with justice. Do caricaturists and commentators in this country suppose that mocking all those Iraqis trying to do their best to give their country some semblance of normality is constructive criticism?



Cricket balls

Sir: The diagram accompanying Jonathan Brown's article on cricket ball swing is fantasy (20 October). It indicates a flow regime that would make the ball swing in the opposite direction to that shown. In fact, the airflow separates from the surface of the ball to form a wake, but it separates more easily and earlier from the smooth side than the rough side (which is why golf balls are dimpled) thereby creating an imbalance of flow speed and pressure that moves the ball laterally.



Fowl play

Sir: May I suggest that you put an end to your correspondence on hen nights and cock and bull stories. At best the comments are paltry and some of the jokes are foul.