Tuesday 5 October 2010

Some of the public reaction to Virginia Ironside advocating smothering a suffering child was deeply disturbing

Many viewers watching BBC1’s religious programme Sunday Morning Live last weekend will have been shocked to hear agony aunt Virginia Ironside advocating smothering a suffering child as an act of motherly love.

Her actual words? 'If I were the mother of a suffering child - I mean a deeply suffering child - I would be the first to want to put a pillow over its face... If it was a child I really loved, who was in agony, I think any good mother would.' She added, 'If a baby's going to be born severely disabled or totally unwanted, surely an abortion is the act of a loving mother.'

Another guest on the programme, Rev Joanna Jepson (pictured), was left open-mouthed and presenter Susanna Reid looked visibly shocked during the live debate, responding: 'That's a pretty horrifying thing to say, that you would put a pillow over a suffering child.'

Ironside’s comments understandably sparked a storm of complaints from viewers and an outcry from disability rights spokespeople but personally I was left even more deeply disturbed by the amount of apparent public support for her views.

If the rapid responses on the Daily Mail website represent in any way the views of the general population (and are not simply those of a vocal minority drafted in for the occasion by eugenic activists) then it seems that many British people actually agree with Ironside. Furthermore, those comments supportive of Ironside’s position attracted the most ‘thumbs up’ from readers whilst those criticising her stance were uniformly given the ‘thumbs down’.

One respondent, calling herself, ‘Widget’ of ‘Broken Britain’, attracted over 1,400 stars from fellow readers for writing, ‘I can see what she is saying - or rather trying to say - and I completely agree. What loving, caring mother would make the conscious decision to bring a child into the world that would live in continual pain and agony and have zero quality of life for its whole existence?’

We are now in Britain well used to pro-euthanasia advocates Dignity in Dying’s calls for a change in the law to allow ‘mentally competent adults suffering unbearably with terminal illness’ to receive lethal injections to end their lives.

But it seems that many members of the public, undoubtedly affected by the protrayal of seemingly desperate cases on the media, now wish to go much further than this. And in fact to do so actually follows logically from what we are already doing. If we abort over 95% of all babies with Down Syndrome diagnosed before birth on the basis that their lives are judged not to worth living, then why not allow infanticide just a few months later, or equally, why not legalise euthanasia for mentally incompetent patients with brain injury or dementia at the other end of life? Wouldn't this be simply taking the principle to its logical conclusion?

Historic codes of medical ethics, like the Hippocratic Oath and Declaration of Geneva, however, forbid all compassionate killing for very good reason.

Some years ago I came across the words of a doctor given in defence at a euthanasia trial and was struck by how compassionate they seemed.

'My underlying motive was the desire to help individuals who could not help themselves... such considerations should not be regarded as inhuman. Nor did I feel it in any way to be unethical or immoral... I am convinced that if Hippocrates were alive today he would change the wording of his oath... in which a doctor is forbidden to administer poison to an invalid even on demand... I have a perfectly clear conscience about the part I played in the affair. I am perfectly conscious that when I said yes to euthanasia I did so with the greatest conviction, just as it is my conviction today that it is right'.

It was seeing the name attached to the testimony that brought me up short. The words were actually spoken at Nuremberg by Karl Brandt, the doctor responsible for co-ordinating the German euthanasia programme during the Second World War. Ironically, many of those involved were in doctors who seemed to be motivated initially by compassion for their victims. But their consciences, and that of the society which allowed them to do what they did, gradually became numbed.

The Nazi holocaust, contrary to popular opinion, did not begin with jack-booted Nazis in death camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka in the mid 1940s. Rather it had far subtler beginnings with doctors in hospitals and psychiatric institutions in the 1930s. And the very first victims were 6,000 disabled children whose lives were judged not to be worth living and who were killed for reasons of ‘compassion’.

You see, once you start killing out of compassion, it can be very difficult to draw a line. And like a frog who makes no attempt to escape from water which is gradually brought to the boil, if the change in temperature is gradual enough, it can be very difficult to perceive what is happening until it is too late. Given some of the reaction to Ironside’s comments it might already be too late for Britain.


  1. 2 things, firstly the Hippocratic oath as it's structured today might place aiding a patient to die outside of the moral realm a physician occupies but historically and as recently as 1935 it was seen as something of a courtesy. (the euthanasia of King George the fifth and the subsequent statements by his doctor lord dawson, who argued in the house of lords that it was every good doctors duty to end a patients suffering, in fact the need for compassionate euthanasia was so blindingly obvious for him he opposed legislation that set it into law because to him it seemed as though the houses were wasting time on a subject that was already clearly settled.)

    secondly to compare euthanasia and more specifically the hypothetical act of a mother of a severely disabled child, who's quality of life is undoubtedly impaired of simply non-existent to the systematic execution and torture of mental patients and disabled children during the height of fascism in europe is disgraceful. You and I both know Peter Saunders that what the nazis did to minority groups was done in the naive pursuit of genetic perfection and compassion was merely the scapegoat used if it ever really was used at all, whilst Victoria Ironside's genuine and actually moving statements about her position are clearly born out of a purely altruistic conscience. a conscience in which part of the duty of a parent is to protect their child from undue suffering, I have no shame in saying that if my child was in constant pain, a pain which they had endured since birth and that child was being kept alive purely to satisfy our base human fears; i.e. death, I would not hesitate to help him/her to die, and i sincerely hope that they would do the same for me.

  2. Thanks Jonathan. The post was deliberately provocative but I made it so in order to make a point.

    First, it is not necessary to kill the patient to kill the pain. A doctor who thinks it is is either incompetent or disingenuous. Lord Dawson was either beyond his depth or didn't have the right drugs. The idea that pain cannot be relieved in experienced hands is a myth perpetrated by a misinformed media and a gullible public. The VES have stopped using pain as an argument for euthanasia because they know that in good hands it can be controlled. That is why the focus is all now on autonomy.

    Second, it is a myth that the Nazi doctors acted purely as you say 'in the naive pursuit of genetic perfection'. This may have been true later (when they were redeployed to the camps) but if you read authoritative accounts of the holocaust (I would recommend Michael Burleigh's 'Death and Deliverance' or Lifton's 'Nazi Doctors') you will find that it all began with disabled children - the first child Brandt killed was killed at his parents's request. Have a look at my summary article in Triple Helix for an overview - http://bit.ly/9Q9Bkn

    Kind regards


  3. I, like many others, have no desire to live without dignity either in a state of continuous pain or in a perpetual drug induced stupor, whiling away my days in hospice care. I have already, in a state of perfect mental and physical health, made the decision that if a situation were to arise where this is the case my preferred option would be a dignified physician aided death.

    Well actually Brandt was already conducting abortions on women deemed "mentally unsuitable" by 1933 so by the time the T-4 program began in the summer of 39 he was already part of a regime obsessed with eradication of genetic imperfection. coincidently the parents of the child wrote to hitler personally, obsessed with his particular brand of eugenics and ashamed of their child, referring to him as "the monster", these are not a very good example of loving cherishing parents aiding a sick child now are they?

    Eugenics and euthanasia programs in germany arose with the specific intent of harming others, they were void of compassion and were run by those obsessed with producing a race without imperfection, there was no "slippery slope", no gradual decline into monstrosity strung from innocuous and well meaning right to die activists, it was a cold callous and calculating program of genocide and, I repeat, to compare it with euthanasia programs operating in the western world or such programs activists wish to operate in the UK is intellectually dishonest and frankly leaves a very bitter taste.

  4. I Accuse (Ich Klage An!) was a popular film in Germany in the mid-1930s. It tells the story of a young woman suffering from multiple sclerosis.

    After much soul-searching, her husband, a physician, kills her as a fellow doctor plays soft music on a piano in a nearby room. This was one the most powerful means that propagandists used to soften up the German people for what followed.

    Historically it has never been possible to separate voluntray euthanasia from involuntary euthanasia. The second always follows the first.

    It is for good reasons that all historic codes of medical ethics state that killing even for supposedly compassionate motives is something that a doctor should never do.

  5. To use a fictitious event as an example of the mindset of the german population during the mid 30s is desperate. What you seem to be suggesting is that I and victoria ironside (and if not us than certainly right to die activists who might follow) are secretly of a eugenic mindset, plotting to operate a t-4 style euthanasia program from state run institutions whilst our pleas for dignity in death for hundreds of citizens (no less our own dignity in our own deaths) are simply propaganda exercises designed to force our agenda into the public domain.

    I repeat, Nazi programs such as forced abortion and t-4 were simply not the result of a slow decline of "moral standards", they were systematically enacted eugenically minded atrocities. the frog, as it were, was simply thrown in the fire.

  6. As I said earlier Jonathan you need to go back and study the history. I'd particularly recommend Leo Alexander's classic New England Journal of Medicine article in 1947.

    Alexander, a psychiatrist who worked for the Office of the Chief of Counsel for war Crimes at Nuremberg, described the process as follows:

    'The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement that there is such a thing as a life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans.'

  7. Thanks for the article and your comments to Jonathan. All have been very insightful. Thanks also for having this blog and fighting as you do, tirelessly and with respect.

  8. It's you in all honesty Peter who needs to go back to school, as it were, on this issue. "the abortion and eugenics policies of nazi germany" by Dr John Hunt is a good place to start. As you probably are aware eugenics was a very popular proposition in the early 20th centruy, no less so in germany than in america, and whilst america also ran eugenically minded abortion programs germany quickly extended its abortion program to operate "post-natal", justifying this with the rather simplistic argument "well we do it whilst they're in the womb, killing the unborn children of those we deem either unstable or unfit, what about the ones who were already born." and equally it meant speeding up the process of the creation of the master race by at least a generation, because after all how could these children and "unfits" procreate when they'd already been murdered.

    You seem not to have grasped my point from previous points so i'll make it perfectly clear, it is a factual matter of public record that nazi euthanasia programs began, not as you would have them begin, with the gradual decline of moral and ethical standards, but explicitly as a means to perfecting the master race. To confuse the two is a mistake and I'm surprised someone in your position, representing several thousand physicians, is content to make such a mistake.

  9. Yes I was aware that the eugenics movement was strong both in america and england in the early 20th century and also obviously that there was a master race agenda in nazi germany. The latter is almost universally recognised - but the history of how it was gradually implemented - starting with disabled chldren - is much less well known.

    My point is that it was allowed to happen because the medical profession and general public were softened up to accept it in part by propaganda about the desirability of both voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. This in turn led to a change in the public conscience.

    We seem to be talking past each other. Perhaps you could lay out your own position for me on involuntary euthanasia, infanticide and abortion for congenital abnormality - both in terms of ethics and law. In which circumstances do you think they are ethical acts or should be legalised?

  10. Well that simply isn't the case, it began with forcing women who the state deemed unfit to have abortions, it did not begin with euthanising disabled children. It was at least, at the very least, 5 years between the two, by which point it was generally accepted that eugenics would be a productive force in building and strengthening the fledgling society that germany had become in the wake of the first world war. Your failure to make a successful distinction between what you believe will happen in the UK (if I understand your position correctly), the gradual decline of ethical standards in medicine and an attitude towards the disabled and elderly that their lives are not worth living (I point I don't support), and the attitudes and policies that led to activities such as the T-4 program weakens the fabric of your argument regarding the ethics of the matter. Standards didn't decline in the way you set out, eugenic movements across the western world had altered the way a majority of people felt about the lives of those around them and so when programs like T-4 began it was seen as being in the public interest, rather than a euthanasia as a consequence of compassion and personal desire.

    I do not support involuntary euthanasia where prior consent has not been given or consent cannot be obtained, to die with dignity in that way must after all be a personal choice and one that noone should take lightly, it's one I have already made for myself should such circumstances arise. However I should also say that to keep someone alive artificially is just as unacceptable.

    On abortion for congenital abnormality I think certainly where the life of the mother is placed at risk it is a must. I would not support the abortion of a child if the life of the mother were not at risk though, and if I were in that position I'm sure i would feel even more duty bound to care for it. In terms of the law however, and given that not everyone feels the same as I do parents should certainly be given that option.

    Certainly in circumstances like that of terry pratchett, where the patient is now in a position of pleading to be allowed to choose when to die it should be legal, and again shutting off life support etc for patients in a vegetative state, where prior consent has been given must also be allowed.

  11. The eugenic mindset in Germany certainly gave the real impetus to the Nazi holocaust but it found fertile soil in four factors - public opinion favouring euthanasia, willing doctors, economic pressure and no fear of prosecution for those involved.

    Are you saying that you do support involuntary euthanasia where prior consent has been given? That is how I read you.

    How do you understand 'being kept alive artificially'?

    Re abortion are you really saying that you support it for congenital abnormaility only to saveteh life of the mother? That is certainly not how I read you if you do indeed support infanticide for congenital abnormality.

    Are you really saying you that support voluntary euthanasia for people with mild dementia like Terry Pratchett?


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.