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The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 28th, 2008

Even a child murderer may deserve a little compassion

The celebrated moral philosopher Baroness Warnock and the child murderess Joanne Hill have something in common. In the past few days they have become figures of public loathing. Their shared interest in a final solution for people with disabilities has hit the news and they are now generally regarded as neo-Nazis.

Horrifying though both women are, however, I think this outrage against them is not entirely what it seems. Part of the anger has to do not with what they’ve done or said but with the way both women have pressed us up against hard questions that we prefer to turn away from.

Warnock, from her exalted position as one of the great and good, has been pronouncing for years on morals and medical ethics. In an interview with the Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work, discussing the predicament of old people with dementia, she spoke of “a duty to die”.

If you’re demented, Warnock said, “you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the NHS”. Consequently, she believes, there is nothing wrong with feeling you ought to be allowed to die – helped to die – if you are a burden on others or the state: “Actually I think that’s the way the future will go, putting it rather brutally. You’d be licensing people to put others down. Actually I think why not . . . ”

As far as I know, Warnock has not translated thought to action. But Hill “put down” her own daughter. She drowned four-year-old Naomi in the bath because she didn’t wish to live with a child who had mild cerebral palsy.

Accounts vary, but it seems that she was ashamed of her daughter (who had to wear callipers to walk) and resented the extra time needed for her care (she had various medical problems, including incontinence). Naomi’s disabilities were only physical; mentally she was unimpaired and a bright and loving child, according to her father. I doubt whether her mother took a considered view that Naomi had a duty to die, or was a burden on the state, but clearly she felt her little girl was an unacceptable burden. When her husband refused to agree to let Naomi be adopted, Hill killed her.

It ought to be obvious that what Warnock said and what Hill did was wrong and that one leads directly to the other. The thought is father, or rather mother, to the deed. What’s alarming is that Warnock has had official influence on public policy in such matters. All the same, I think there is room for more compassion and careful consideration in both cases.

People who don’t have a disabled child may not understand how difficult it can be. Quite apart from any practical problems, which can sometimes be overwhelming, the mother (or father) will probably have many sadnesses and fears to contend with. We live in a world that is obsessed with bodily perfection and where children who are peculiar are teased and bullied mercilessly.

Then there are feelings that are not allowed to be named – in a hypocritical culture where the expression of feeling is usually compulsory – and shame is one of them. Commentators spoke disdainfully of Hill’s alleged feelings of shame about her disabled child and pointed out (inconsistently) that Naomi was only mildly disabled anyway – would shame have been okay if she’d been severely disabled?

Having grown up close to such questions, I’ve come to realise that shame is not only natural but understandable. One feels at a deep level like a failure as a mother or father. Men often feel this much more strongly than mothers and don’t want to be associated with a damaged child. Well-adjusted people are able to put this shame behind them and I think it’s a mark of a good person in a civilised society that she or he can do so. But it may be difficult. A poorly adjusted person may find it impossible.

Hill has had a history of marked mental illness since the age of 17 and suffered serious postnatal depression after Naomi’s birth: she was a heavy drinker and clearly a problem person with a failing marriage. She knew she was not proving a good mother, so clearly that she asked for her child to be adopted. That is highly unusual; she could hardly have sent out a clearer signal of alarm. It was ignored.

None of this makes her innocent of murder, but it is ground for some compassion and understanding rather than righteous indignation. I suspect the indignation comes from an unwillingness – an inability – to confront the inescapable harshness of disability and the painful truth that it is indeed a burden.

As for the preposterous Warnock, there is little reason and still less incentive to try to defend her. In fairness, however, she has said such things before and her comments to the Scottish magazine were mostly taken out of context.

It is silly of her to talk of a duty to die. It shows her seigneurial indifference to what most people feel and to what the media will pick up. She seems to have no idea of what someone in her position can and cannot say, or that the public arena is not a philosophy seminar. However, the phrase comes, as she explained in the interview, from the title of an essay she has written for a Norwegian periodical, entitled A Duty to Die?. And it has a question mark.

The question mark is the point. Nobody has a duty to die unless he or she independently thinks so. It is wrong to suggest it to anyone and to frighten people with the thought. Yet men and women struggling with the miseries of looking after old people with dementia at home can surely be forgiven for wishing, sometimes, that they would die. And some people, facing dementia, might indeed feel it would be better if they did die before the misery – or some other horror – set in.

I think they should have the right to die, with help if necessary. But it can never be a duty, and to use the word “duty” suggests to anyone who hadn’t already come to the same conclusion that Warnock is unfit for purpose and indeed something of a burden on the public mind and purse.

Fortunately for her, and despite her efforts, it is not her duty to hasten to join the choirs invisible; nor is it anyone’s right to send her there, whatever the temptation.