Page 3, 1st January 1982

1st January 1982
Page 3
Page 3, 1st January 1982 — The shadow of death that is hanging over unwanted lives

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The shadow of death that is hanging over unwanted lives

The Linacre Centre, a Catholic body studying medical ethics, is to publish a report on euthanasia next month. Luke Gormally explains its background.

DR JOHN HAVARD, Secretary of the British Medical Association, would "like to see an agreement with the AttorneyGeneral that if a decision not to treat an infant is taken by the right people in the right place, then he will not prosecute" — according to a report in the Observer.

It needs to be understood that the decision Snot to treat' can be a code for a decision to sedate and starve a baby to death. The basis for this type of decision (which an article in the Law Society's Gazette proposes should be an acceptable basis in law) is the judgement that a child has not or cannot have a "worthwhile life".

The enormity of the practice of killing babies (and its proposed acceptance in law) on the grounds that they do not have 'a worthwhile life' is not much remarked on in pubic debate.

Many in the pro-life movement argue that infanticide has all along been the foreseeable logic of decriminialising abortion. Still, we should not perhaps underestimate the significance of the fact that abortion was never classified as murder in English Criminal Law.

What is not proposed for our acceptance has hitherto been regarded as murder.

In effect we are being asked to accept a radically new kind of justification for homicide: that killing may be justified on the grounds that a person's life lacks value in so far as that person will predictably fail to achieve a certain kind of normality.

The controversy following the trial of Dr Leonard Arthur is worth contemplating by anyone who wishes to understand the corruption which has overtaken medical practice.

'Corruption' is here used descriptively; people often prefer the anodyne phrase 'moral cdurafism'. It will do providing you have taken the measure of the degree of moral pluralism which now obtains.

There is a case for a certain degree of pluralism in society, in practice as well as belief, in so far as without it there is not the freedom necessary to authentic moral development.

But this proposition assumes that human beings possess, prior to the realisation of development, a worth and dignity which are to be respected and protected.

If pluralism is to be coherent it must acknowledge limits. It lapses into incoherence if it seeks to accommodate utilitarian defences of abortion and paediatric euthanasia.

Confronting this deep-lying moral pluralism is an unavoidable part of The Linacre Centre's task.

The Centre was established in the early summer of 1977 under a Trust of which the Trustees are the Catholic Archbishops of England and Wales.

The general purpose of the Trust is to aid those engaged in the field of health care — either as practitioners or scientists (in the medical or social sciences) — "to bring Catholic principles to bear in the performance of their work."

The phenomenon of 'inoral pluralism' is important to understanding what is involved in achieving that purpose (a) because Catholics are not immune to the voices of Babel (those voices deeply characterise our culture). and (b) because

moral pluralism is a fact of life in clinical practice and more particularly in our medical schools. It is certainly now no longer possible to assume (was it ever?) that students will informally imbibe a sound medical ethic.

More . specirtcally, the Centre has sponsored and serviced during the past three years the work of an interdisciplinary group established "to examine trends towards euthanasia in contemporary clinical practice in the light of Catholic principles."

This Working Party completed a major Report in the autumn which will be published early in February. In eight chapters the Report: surveys influential trends in clinical thinking and practice; presents a philosophical critique of euthanasia in the light of the ethics of murder; presents the foundations of traditional Christian thinking; examines in some detail the rights of competent and incompetent patients (with particular reference to refusing or withdrawing treatment); and discusses at some length the positive alternatives to euthanasia in the five fields of clinical practice in which euthanasia does (or might) present itself as a systematic option: care of the newborn, care of the handicapped, care of the elderly, terminal care, and intensive care.

The Report is not merely

content to say what cannot count as good practice (and why it cannot) but undertakes to discuss in some detail the kind of care which exemplifies sound practice.

Such a Report would have been impossible without sustained collaboration over a long period between clinicians, philosophers and theologians.

In some measure, then, the Centre has succeeded in promoting, within its own field of responsibility, that collaboration of talents in facing intellectual challenges which is urgently needed within the Catholic community in Britain.

Something also needs to be said here about the character of those challenges in the field of health care: (i) to work at exploring the implications of Christian values both in their bearings on specific questions and in relation to the whole organisation of `healthcare' in our society; (ii) to help clinicians see what is systematically incompatible with their own tradition — and why it is so. This calls for a real understanding of the conflicting voices which claim to interpret the nature of human responsibility; (iii) to promote exploration of what it is to be a Catholic 'Christian in the field of health care. Does it mean being largely indistinguishable from one's fellow professions with the exception of a marginal display of eccentricity over abortion? Or are the implications of Christian commitment distinctive and systematic for the whole of one's life as a doctor or nurse or social worker? And if the general answer to that last question is yes, Will the detailed answer not depend on some systematic understanding of the character of health care institutions in our society? Without such understanding, is it for example possible to know how best to ensure justice 'for the orphan and the widow'?

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