Friday, October 2, 2009

New Targets in the Culture Wars?: Have British Doctors No Moral Backbone?

The Right is aghast at the recent events regarding assisted suicide and end of life care in their country. Women and doctors became their targets in the abortion battle. Who will be their targets in the battle over assisted suicide?

This summer Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis patient, won a court case that would permit her husband, Omar, to help her leave the country for assisted suicide - which is illegal in Britain. The case asked for clarification of the 1961 Suicide Act. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), in response to the Purdy case, was last week forced to clarify their position on how and when those who assist loved ones to commit suicide may be prosecuted. They have suffered deep and angry criticism.

British columnist Gerald Warner takes to task the creep of a "death culture" in today's Telegraph regarding the recent case of Kerrie Wooltorton. A 26 year old who was depressed over her inability to have a child and had attempted to commit suicide 9 times this year, Woolorton successfully committed suicide this week.

Wooltorton consumed poisons in her home, called an ambulance, and showed all medical staff her living will. She wished to be kept comfortable but not to be saved. In the wake of the Purdy case and new DPP guidelines, Wooltorton was not flushed of poisons this time. Doctors, fearing litigation under the 2005 Mental Capacity Act which allows patients to determine which types of lifesaving treatments they may receive, abided her wishes. From the DailyBeast:

In addition to her letter to medical personnel, she made her wishes verbally clear—at the inquest a coroner found that she "had the capacity to consent to treatment" but "refused such treatment in full knowledge of the consequences.

Warner echos many of the same arguments that we hear from the Right in the US regarding what he calls a society "perverted beyond all coherence, morality or even sanity." To blame are: the creep of socialized medicine; doctors who have lost their moral way; unclear lines regarding sanctity of life; an overzealous court system; the assertion of personal rights over the good of a (Christian) society; a permissive and blind media. He even manages to knock science and it's "climate change nonsense."

Because the Right, not only in the US but in Britain, Canada and other countries struggling with end of life concerns, has drawn their own goal posts in the discussion, setting the beginning and end of life according to their beliefs, the culture wars that began with the legalization of abortion (in the US in '73 and in Britain in '67) are being renewed in new territory. The concept of "whole cloth" fostered concerns of a "slippery slope," meaning the "compromise" of one area of the sanctity of life, from "womb to tomb" as Warner says, would lead to a total moral collapse of society. In the abortion culture wars, women and doctors were the targets, the corruptors of society.

Compromise over abortion has never come, despite the recent talk in the US of a (non-existent) "middle ground." A renewed Right in both Britain and the US challenges not only abortion but contraception (forcing them to side with doctors in a fight for conscience clauses); the suffering of the dying is a new battle ground in issues of health care reform, medical technology, and individual rights. Rather than face the failings of the medical industry (corporate entities with vested interest in prolonging the lives of the dying), the Right has chosen to couple "euthanasia" with abortion as two absolute poles on an eroding societal compass. Blaming women and doctors for abortion was easy; now the odd job of assigning blame for assisted suicide comes. It is a convoluted task, complicated by the political positioning in the US on health care reform, and in Britain by the court and government's hesitancy.

Wooltorton's death is a grave tragedy, without doubt. A woman alone, depressed, suicidal. One must ask what kind of treatment for depression and fertility she received after each of her prior nine suicide attempts. But I liken her case in the recent assisted suicide landscape to perhaps the murder of Dr. George Tiller: an anomalous, horrible tragedy not claimed as just by the majority on either side but used - grievously, disgustingly - to perpetuate the rancor of the culture wars.

Tiller was brutally harassed and murdered by those who held to the greatest extreme on the Right. I wonder who Warner's blind lashings will help to focus zealots on: doctors? court justices? politicians? Assisted suicide forms a new front in the culture wars. How the Right chooses to work their machine, created to oppose abortion and now employed to enforce the way those in pain die, is yet to be seen. We know who Warner is stirring up with his over-the-top rhetoric but we don't know yet who their targets will be.

Warner closes:

But English law no longer defends the weak; it is the plaything of self-consciously “progressive” busybodies, pseudo-moralists, bluestocking baronesses and knee-jerk opponents of the vestigial remnants of the Judaeo-Christian ethic. Welcome to Brave New World.

UPDATE: John Smeaton, director of the British Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) urges prosecution of doctors in the death of Kerrie Wooltorton.

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