and background article

by Chris Docker, Executive Secretary,
Scottish Voluntary Euthanasia Society

A Mr David Hainsworth appeared in court in Edinburgh today (Friday 6th June) charged with the attempted murder of his 82-year old cancer-ridden father. He later walked free from the court with a two-year probation order after the judge heard letters of forgiveness from his brother, mother and uncle. Mercy killing has again been viewed leniently by the courts in Scotland.

Mr Hainsworth pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of assaulting his father with intent to smother him with a pillow. He was pulled off by relatives; then he ran from the house and was later found to have mutilated himself. His father, who had been diagnosed in 1985, died a few days later while David was sitting in a police cell.

David, aged 54, is a maths graduate and former computer programmer. Described as a loving and caring son, he had moved back to the Scottish border town of <%-2>Galashiels over ten years - to be closer to his father - and now takes work as a gardener.<%0>

Hearing how he had been tormented by terrible guilt after the incident, temporary judge John Wheatley QC advised him to "seek medical advice." His defence advocate, Alan Nicol, told the court how the burden of caring for the terminally ill man had been borne almost entirely by David and his mother, Irene. Judge Wheatley described the incident it as an unusual and distressing situation.

Enormous emotional pressures are forced onto caring, desperate members of our society when they face a euthanasia request from a family member.

This case demonstrates the perhaps irresolvable dilemma between devotion to a loved one and respect for the law.

When the law is unworkable and fails to allow for exceptional cases in today's world it needs to be modernized.

If the defendant's beneficence and respect for the dying person's autonomy are now influencing courts in assisted suicide cases, we need to take the unfair pressure off relatives and provide emotional and legal safeguards. A person under the intense emotional strain of a dying request from a loved one is poorly placed to make a decision to help, or to weigh the consequences of breaking the law out of love. The person who has to decide whether to help may be severely traumatised for a long time after the event, whichever way their conscience causes them to act.

Suicide and euthanasia should never be encouraged, but in exceptional circumstances they are ethically justifiable, and statute needs to be updated to bring it into line with legal reasoning and public morality.

This case follows not long on the heels of Paul Brady's Scottish Court appearance for accepting the euthanasia request of his brother, James. Lord Macfadyen had been very careful to emphasize the illegality of Paul Brady's actions, and said it was only the "exceptional" circumstances of this case which had deterred him from imposing a custodial sentence. In merely admonishing Brady, the judge made reference to "a combination of powerful mitigating circumstances" which had influenced his decision, including the fact that Brady had acted out of "compassion rather than from any malicious motive or any desire to make matters easier" for himself. He also referred to the fact that Paul's acts were carried out "at his [James's] own earnest, and plainly heartfelt, request."

The decision in the Brady case provoked something of a mixed response from advocates of reform. While Lord Macfadyen's decision not to imprison Paul Brady has been widely welcomed, there is also dismay that a case such as this should have to be resolved by recourse to the criminal courts, and the same may be said of the Hainsworth case. It is the view of many supporters of a right-to-die that these are classic examples of the kind of case in which medical assistance should be available to an individual who wishes to exercise control over the timing and circumstances of his or her own death.

Colombia has recently legislated to allow voluntary euthanasia in certain circumstances. Australia's Northern Territory had an abortive euthanasia law, the first of its kind in the world, which was tragically overturned by the Australian Senate some six months after it went into effect. Euthanasia is illegal in the Netherlands, although following official guidelines provides a standard defence and there is no prosecution in the majority of cases. Elsewhere it is illegal, but some jurisdictions take motive into consideration when considering a defence. The Scottish Voluntary Euthanasia Society provides information under certain circumstances on methods of suicide and assisted suicide in its booklet "Departing Drugs." It promotes a change in the law to allow physician voluntary euthanasia.


reprint freely with acknowledgement

background article on Paul Brady by Colin Gavaghan (VESS):

draft Bill on Physician Assisted Suicide by Glasgow University: