Not too long ago, Frances Inglis reappeared in the headlines, with her failed appeal against her conviction for murder.
For those who don’t remember, she killed her 22 year old son, Thomas Inglis, by injecting him with heroin after he suffered a brain injury after falling out of the back of an ambulance. She had previously made a similar attempt on his life but failed, causing a deterioration of his condition. She was given a mandatory life sentence with a minimum tariff of eight years, reduced to 5 years on appeal after the judges heard that she had a long history of depression and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (the event that triggered it hasn’t been revealed) shortly before her son’s accident.
Now all of this sounds like a simple personal tragedy for Thomas Inglis and his family. What makes it interesting from a wider political perspective is the reaction of the media and public.
The almost unanimous view was that what Frances Inglis had done was justified, that she had saved her son from his horrific condition and that she had been victimised by a cruel and inflexible law. ”Don’t punish this Mother Courage” is the headline of an article by Fiona Philips, in the Mirror. “Courage,” along with “love” and ”brave,” appear consistently in the reporting of the case. Within the mainstream media commentary I can only find Dominic Lawson in the Independent and George Pitcher in The Telegraph providing a contrary view.
Very little attention was given to the facts of the case, as outlined in the appeal judgment. Almost immediately after Thomas Inglis’s accident, his mother became morbidly obsessed with the notion that he was suffering unbearably, even though he would almost certainly have been comatose at this point, and that it was her duty to put him out of his suffering.
His doctors were optimistic about the likelihood of him recovering enough to live independently, but his mother disregarded their opinion. She illegally acquired heroin and, just two months after his original injury, injected him with it leading to a cardiac arrest. He was revived by medical staff at the hospital but his brain was starved of oxygen resulting in a second, much more serious, brain injury, after which his prognosis was described by one specialist as “exceedingly poor”.
Oxygen deprivation would have affected his whole brain leaving little him with little remaining function or room for recovery. At this stage the possibility of his artificial feeding being removed was discussed between his family and doctors.
Nevertheless it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that the appeal judgment reveals that there were some reports that his condition may have improved before his death. A year later Frances Inglis managed to gain access to him in breech of her bail conditions, by pretending to be his aunt, and barricaded herself inside his room. She again injected him with an overdose of heroin and, when interrupted by a nurse, said that she had HIV, and threatened her with the syringe she had used to inject her son. This time doctors were unable to revive him, and she was charged and later convicted of his murder.
There were a number of aspects to this case that put it outside the standard debate on voluntary euthanasia.
Firstly, it was very much involuntary. Thomas Inglis never expressed a wish to die, or indeed had the capacity after his accident.
Secondly, he wasn’t dying and his prognosis was relatively good for regaining some level of independence. Besides which, his mother formed and acted on her intention to kill him long before the long term outcome of his injury could have been known.
Nevertheless, the case was immediately slotted, by both the press and the public, into the wider liberal case for euthanasia. This may have had something to do with the fact that a rash of assisted suicide cases, at the time, had brought the subject to the fore, particularly the case of Lynn Gilderdale, who had a severe form of ME and committed suicide with the help of her mother, and that of Ray Gosling who claimed (falsely, it would later turn out ) to have killed a former lover who was dying of AIDS. However, I think there is a deeper phenomenon at play, namely the way the concept of “mercy killing” has captured the public imagination. The popular perception of the Inglis case was carried along by the strength of this narrative, almost without regard for the facts, which were those of a mother with a history of mental health problems, who was unable to cope with the psychological pressure of her son’s injury.
So why has “mercy killing,” as a cause, found such a firm place in the public imagination?
Firstly, it is important to realise that euthanasia and assisted suicide are primarily advocated for by those who are currently able bodied. Liberalism’s respect for individual autonomy is often cited as the central reason for relaxing the law on euthanasia. However support for Frances Inglis doesn’t fit with this a core motivation. Thomas Inglis had no say in his death, but this didn’t stop commentators from queuing up to defend his mother.
Foremost among these were “Dignity In Dying” an organisation ostensibly set up to advocate for legal assisted suicide. I suspect that the stronger motive is fear: fear of pain, fear of incapacity and fear of dependency. Thomas Inglis undoubtedly had a long, difficult and uncertain road ahead of him. Recovery from brain injuries of any kind is a gruelling and often distressing process. It is likely that he would have been left with some degree of disability and he would certainly never have returned to the condition he was in before the accident. Nevertheless, he was 22 years old – the same age I am now – with his whole life ahead of him regardless of how different from that which he had had before. As a society we adhere to a very utilitarian view of the value of life, we imagine it as a balance sheet of very clearly demarcated pains and privileges and if it goes into the red, it ceases to be worthwhile. In a secure and well off society, where few people suffer significant privations, the threshold of suffering, at which this point is reached, is fairly low.
In addition to this our society places a high value on independence, so being in a condition where you would require assistance in everyday tasks would be viewed, by many, as demeaning. This was shown in the case of Daniel James who traveled to Switzerland, with the help of his parents to kill himself, after becoming quadriplegic in a rugby accident. His parents said he didn’t want a “second class life.” They were also widely praised for their “courage.”
Both Daniel James and Thomas Inglis, were, before their accidents, young men in peak physical condition, something that signifies a high status in our society. Wider society finds this difficult to reconcile with the much lower esteem they would have, subsequently, been held in because of their disabilities. There former status is then projected forward onto their subsequent one as their authentic state, trapped or concealed by what they became. That is why a certain nobility is imputed to Daniel James’ decision and Frances Inglis’s – the former because he was too dignified submit to disability, the latter because she sacrificed her freedom to spare her son this perceived degradation.
Another, less openly acknowledged, fear is of the loss of freedom brought about by caring for a disabled relative. Parents who kill disabled children, particularly those with learning difficulties often get significantly reduced sentences compared to other killers. For example, Jacob Wragg, who had a rare degenerative condition, was smothered by his father, who was given a two year suspended sentence for manslaughter, after claiming that the killing was a “mercy killing.” Other family members described Jacob as happy right up until the time of his death.
In a similar case in Canada, Tracy Latimer, who had Cerebral Palsy was killed by her gather. Robert Latimer was convicted of Murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, eventually serving 16 years before being released on parole, in December, however he received an outpouring of public support and is considered to have fundamentally changed the way euthanasia is viewed in Canada. Juries and the public empathise with the difficulties of parents caring for disabled children, often more than with the children, who are seen as “other” because of their disabilities.
As previously stated, the legalized euthanasia movement is primarily driven by able-bodied people. In contrast, the disability rights movement is ambivalent and often hostile towards the idea. Their primary concern is that the lives of people with disabilities are considered as valuable as those without and are granted the same protection under the law.
One of Frances Inglis’s surviving sons suggested that lethal injections be legalised for brain-injured people. It has also been suggested that those who kill family members in the honest belief that they are suffering should not be charged or convicted of murder, but perhaps some lesser offence or not at all. This suggestion was made without considering that it would removed protection from fatal violence from anyone with a disability and would enshrine in law the idea that some lives have less intrinsic value than others.
Collectively, the disability rights movement also rejects the balance sheet model of happiness, recognising that people’s desires can change with their circumstances and that people can tolerate more adversity than many people with relatively easy lives appreciate. Satisfaction isn’t related to absence of hardship in a simple linear way. They also reject the notion that suffering springs inevitably from disability, instead seeing social attitudes and neglect as the main obstacles rather than disability itself. From this perspective Daniel James’s choice to seek suicide did not occur in a vacuum but cannot be separated from the attitudes that saw his condition as a humiliation and “second class.” Pity itself can be intrusive and burdensome.
Providing for easy assisted suicide is also something of a cop-out for society as a whole, obviating the necessity and political will for providing people with disabilities, however extensive, with the resources needed to live as comfortable lives with as much self determination as possible. Particularly at a time when disability services and benefits are being cut, and people with disabilities are seemingly under attack, it’s easy to see why they would experience the promotion of an easy, socially sanctioned way out, as an existential threat.
Ultimately, these factors were what made the Inglis judgment such a departure from received wisdom and hence so radical. The appeal judgment states explicitly “however disabled Thomas might have been, a disabled life, even a life lived at the extremes of disability, is not one jot less precious than the life of an able-bodied person.” This is an admirable statement, even more so for being fairly unusual in the discourse surrounding disability and death in modern Britain. Frances Inglis became a liberal cause celebre, but her conviction paradoxically upheld many of the values inherent to liberalism, namely the autonomy and inalienable value of the individual, in this case Thomas Inglis even in his parlous state at the end of his life.
In the judgment it is written that the defence implied that “Thomas Inglis was ‘already dead in all but a small physical degree.” The judges respond: “the fact is that he was alive, a person in being,” and more concisely “the law doesn’t recognise [that] idea. May that continue to be the case.