Killing with kindness

"I did not murder my mother ... What I did ... I did for the love of my mother".

These few words, printed on the front page of this newspaper above an image of Sean Davison surrounded by supporters outside the Dunedin District Court last week, and alongside an image of himself with his mother Patricia in happier times, encapsulated in a small way the anguish and despair accompanying a most devastating of personal situations: experiencing the slow and painful death of a loved one.

Davison had been on trial, initially for the attempted murder of his 85-year-old mother Dr Patricia Davison (also known as Ferguson) after she died on October 25, 2006, following a fatal dose of morphine. An alternative charge of "inciting and procuring" his mother to commit suicide was introduced by the Crown and, with Davison pleading guilty to that charge, the attempted murder indictment was not pursued.

The critical question asked in the trial was whether, in the end, Davison did in fact intentionally administer a fatal dose of morphine in an attempt to end her suffering, as appeared to have been suggested in an early draft of the book he subsequently penned, Before We Say Goodbye. If the Crown could have proved such a contention beyond a reasonable doubt, then the jury would have been expected by law to find Davison guilty of attempted murder.

The high-profile case raises once again the issue of euthanasia and its euphemistic relative, "assisted suicide". The pro-euthanasia lobby has taken this case of a highly educated physician and her equally educated son, a 50-year-old South Africa-based microbiology professor, to highlight perceived shortcomings of the law.

Here, they argue, was a woman of sound mind, who, having been a doctor for decades, seen illness and death and cared for people herself, made it clear that she did not want the agony of a terminal and painful disease prolonged.

All the accused could be guilty of, they say, was a courageous and selfless act of compassion.

Caught between the depth of his love for his mother, her wish to be allowed to die with dignity, and his knowledge that to accelerate her death intentionally and by his own actions was illegal, he took the only humane course. We treat animals with greater respect and dignity they argue, insisting the law should be changed to allow euthanasia.

Compelling as some of the arguments of euthanasia campaigners might be, relaxing of the law is fraught with possibilities for abuse. In a world in which familial relations are often vexed and financial considerations frequently to the fore, the pressures and opportunities for the infirm and their families are such that base motives might find their way into life-ending decisions; further, that elderly people uncomfortable and afflicted by adverse medical conditions might be inclined to feel themselves a burden on others and seek to end their own lives.

The "right to die" could all too easily become a "duty to die".

Building legal safeguards into liberalisation of the law to protect the vulnerable would, some say, be practically impossible. And if the moral compass were to shift in such a way as to allow for the "termination" of the terminally ill, why not others - the badly deformed, the severely intellectually impaired, for example - whose quality of life is such that their deaths might be considered a mercy?

The last days of a terminal patient's life are usually attended to by trained doctors and palliative care nurses. This is as it should be, for this is precisely the time when those closest to the subject are likely to be in greatest turmoil. The administration of pain-relief - through such devices as morphine pumps - in such circumstances is a finely tuned equation, and one that is best left to the compassion and expertise of those not emotionally entangled in the event.

It is not a matter that can easily be legislated for; nor should the medical judgement of those involved be routinely tested before the law. If sophisticated and compassionate palliative care were available for those who needed it, neither course of action would be necessary. On balance, the law should stand as it is.


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