Wednesday, 12 March 2014

"Silk" on assisted dying

Last night I watched Monday's episode of BBC1's Silk. I much enjoy this series with its combination of courtroom and human drama. The two rival/colleague QCs are Martha Costello and Clive Reader; the machiavellian head clerk of chambers is Billy Lamb (who has prostrate cancer). This last episode was based on the "contentious" theme of assisted suicide. I thought it was well done with the exception of the rather cartoon portrayal of the Catholic counsellor. It was a bit too easy in my view to make the family involved Catholics.

Maxine Peake and Rupert Penry-Jones
The case centred on seventeen-year old, Jo, who had been injured and left tetraplegic in a car crash. She is killed by a lethal combination of her drugs, accelerated with whisky. Her mother is in court for her murder, having rung the police just after the event and confessed. Clive Reader prosecutes for the Crown; Martha Costello defends. In court, Reader gives a fair account of the arguments against euthanasia, primarily to protect the vulnerable (the disabled, the elderly, the painfully ill). Costello's defence is to argue that Sheila the mother was acting at her daughter's request. Naturally the emotional weight was on her side. That is the role that Maxine Peake (Costello) is consistently given - the humane face of the law. She's the one who tugs at the heart strings, as well as having a razor sharp brain. And it's the easy side of the argument. The arguments against seem hard-headed and cold by comparison.

Until, that is, one hears the real news from Belgium that its parliament has approved voluntary euthanasia for terminally ill children of any age - with parental consent and after counselling. I have recently read this comment: "We all know about very ill children and adults who have had to endure extreme weakness,  debilitation and are nearing the end of their lives, for whom there are no quick and easy answers. Should ending their life be an option? There are some who think so, and continue to campaign for 'death with dignity' whilst dismissing... concern about 'a slippery slope' to full-blown euthanasia. It is only 12 years since Belgium legalised euthanasia for adults. They know that British society is not ready to legalise euthanasia - so they are adopting a 'softly softly' approach, starting with 'assisted dying' for terminally ill patients able to make a reasoned decision" (Lyndon Bowring). It won't be long before we hear about Margot McDonald and Lord Falconer promoting bills for just that in the Scottish and Westminster parliaments respectively.

Silk's resolution to the legal conundrum was rather neat. In my view it was a vindication of the validity of the law as it stands. Had the mother been responsible for her daughter's death with nothing but her own word that it was her daughter's wish, she could well have been found guilty of murder. As it transpired, she had not been involved; Jo's youngest brother had carried out the girl's instructions and his mother lies to protect him. And the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to take any further action. It illustrated what I call the justice and mercy of the present law. Justice demands that life should protected and that the taking of life should prevented. Mercy takes motive into account; hence the guidelines for prosecution allow for compassion as a mitigation. Ending someone's life must never be a matter of economics or convenience. The reaction of the two QCs to the case was one not of triumph or defeat but of emotional  wreckage. Nothing is more shocking than the taking of life, whatever the reason.


  1. Firstly, I agree with you Michael that "Silk" is a very well produced programme with so many humane issues in, the Catholic Counsellor represented auded.
    The acting is simply superb. We look forward to it each week.
    It's sad isn't it that we live in a world that doesn't appear to have Christ at it's centre and has lost it's way over so many issues. I agree though, the Catholic Counsellor represented an appallingly sanctimonious face of the Catholic Church.
    Michael Mayne has this to say in his beautiful book "Enduring Melody"
    "Often the world seems to be governed by fury, where the wells of peace are poisoned and the cries of the suffering are largely ignored. And those who follow Christ need to hold in a fine balance two great requirements our faith lays upon us. The first is to that of love, love for the world in all its need, that together we may 'act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God'. The second is to remember that there is a world elsewhere. "
    Learning to love and really know oneself to BE loved seems to be a lifetime's effort.
    Years ago I used to hear that Radio programme which always closed with this verse and I found, and still find it hugely helpful to cling to.
    "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; new every morning,great is your faithfulness O Lord, great is your faithfulness."

    1. "Great is thy faithfulness" was my mother's favourite hymn.