Euthanasia's Growing Acceptance

Judicial Leniency for «Mercy Killing»

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LONDON, JAN. 7, 2006 ( Euthanasia is legal in only a few countries, but even where it is prohibited judges are increasingly reluctant to punish offenders. A recent example is the case of English father, Andrew Wragg.

Wragg’s 10-year-old son, Jacob, suffered from the degenerative disease of Hunter’s syndrome and had multiple disabilities. On July 24, 2004, his father smothered Jacob, afterward calling the police to tell them he had killed his son, the BBC reported Dec. 12.

During the trial, the prosecution argued that Wragg’s act was a «selfish killing,» carried out because he could no longer cope with looking after the boy. But the judge, Justice Anne Rafferty, said the case was «exceptional» and that there was nothing to be gained by sending the father to jail. Wragg was given a suspended jail sentence.

A similar case occurred three months earlier. On Sept. 3 the Times reported that Donald Mawditt admitted helping to kill his wife by giving her antidepressants, then suffocating her. His wife, Maureen, suffered from hemochromatosis, a condition that causes too much iron in the blood, damaging the liver and pancreas and causing heart failure. She was told she had only a 50% chance of living longer than two years.

During proceedings, evidence showed that the couple had made a pact when they married to end each other’s life if they fell terminally ill. Judge Thomas Crowther decided that the case was «exceptional» and spared him a prison term. Mawditt received a three-year conditional discharge.

Another 2005 case was that of Brian Blackburn, who pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of his wife, Margaret. The Guardian newspaper last Jan. 15 reported that Blackburn killed his wife, then unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide.

His wife had an advanced case of stomach cancer and would have died within weeks. Judge Richard Hawkins said that the case was one of «exceptional circumstances,» and Blackburn received a suspended jail sentence.

No jail sentences

Australian judges are also sparing relatives from jail in similar cases. A case in point is that of Catherine Anne Pryor, in the state of Tasmania.

Pryor was found guilty of the attempted murder of her mother and pleaded guilty to helping her father commit suicide, the local Mercury newspaper reported Dec. 20. In March 2003 she gave her mother an injection of insulin, and about eight months later injected her father with insulin and pethidine and put a plastic bag over his head until he stopped breathing.

The court was told that both parents were in poor health. Anne Grant was 77 and in the early stages of dementia and Peter Grant was 79 and suffering from terminal cancer. Pryor received two suspended jail sentences. Justice Michael Hill declared «he did not think the community would want her to go to jail,» the article reported.

Earlier last year, in the first case of its kind in the state of New South Wales, a local court magistrate, Alan Railton, set free Fred Thompson after he killed his wife, Katerina. According to the Sydney Morning Herald of Feb. 21, he gave her six sleeping tablets, then suffocated her.

She was suffering from advanced multiple sclerosis. Initially, authorities thought it was a natural death, but later Thompson admitted his deed to the police.

No proof of love

Some commentators criticized the leniency shown in the case of Andrew Wragg in England. In the opinion pages of the British Telegraph of Dec. 18, Mary Wakefield wrote that while the official verdict in the case was that Wragg suffered from «diminished responsibility,» the argument that really swayed the court was that he was motivated to kill his son out of love.

This judgment could encourage others to think that the law is lenient toward mercy killing, commented Wakefield. Moreover, it seemed «that Andrew Wragg didn’t love Jacob enough to want to continue the day-to-day grind of caring for him until the natural end of his life; he only loved him enough to kill him,» she noted.

Muriel Gray, writing in the Sunday Herald, a Scottish paper, on Dec. 18, observed that Jacob was «innocent of everything but being born with a chromosomal deficiency.» Jacob suffered from his illness, but the judge concentrated more on the suffering of the parents, Gray said.

She further noted that the judge justified the husband’s decision to kill his son, even though he was not the primary caregiver; it was Wragg’s wife who took the main strain of looking after Jacob. What the decision means, continued Gray, is that «our disabled children’s lives are worth considerably less than the able-bodied.»

Pressure also continues for easing the law on euthanasia in Britain. In the House of Lords last year a private bill by Lord Joel Joffe sought to allow the terminally ill to legally request aid to commit suicide.

Commenting on the proposal, Archbishop Peter Smith, chairman of the English and Welsh bishops’ Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, said that what is needed instead is better palliative care. «Terminally ill people need to be cared for properly, safe in the knowledge that their lives are of value, and that society does not wish them dead,» the archbishop said in a Nov. 9 press release. «They need to be cared for, not killed off.»

Dutch debacle

Disturbing news, meanwhile, continued to come from the Netherlands, the country that pioneered legal euthanasia. On May 7 the British Medical Journal reported that for the first time the official Dutch assessment system approved a request for assisted suicide from a patient with Alzheimer’s disease.

Then, on Sept. 9, the Irish Examiner newspaper reported that a study carried out by researchers from the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam found that doctors are helping to hasten the deaths of sick children in a variety of ways, sometimes acting at the edges of the law.

The study was published in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. It looked at 64 deaths of sick children during a four-month period. Of those, 42 cases involved medical decisions that could hasten death.

On Sept. 29 the Associated Press reported that the Dutch government intends to expand its euthanasia policy, setting guidelines for when doctors may end the lives of terminally ill newborns with the parents’ consent.

The guidelines were drawn up in 2004 by doctors at the Groningen University Medical Center. They contemplate permitting euthanasia in cases when a child is terminally ill with no prospect of recovery; when it is suffering great pain; when two sets of doctors agree the situation is hopeless; and when parents give their consent.

The Dec. 10 issue of the British Medical Journal gave further details on the changes. Doctors who end the lives of babies will be judged by a committee of medical and legal experts to whom all cases must be reported.

Ending the life of a baby will remain illegal, but if the doctors adhere to the established criteria they are unlikely to be prosecuted. According to the medical journal, 22 cases of doctors ending the life of newborns have been reported to the public prosecution service since 1997. After two test case acquittals in the 1990s, all have been dismissed.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that painkillers can be used to alleviate the suffering of those who are dying, even when this shortens their life (No. 2279). But direct euthanasia that seeks to end the lives of the handicapped, the sick or dying «is morally unacceptable,» warns the Catechism in No. 2277. A message lawmakers and judges alike are increasingly overlooking.

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