Causing Death And Allowing To Die -- By: David J. Atkinson

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 34:1 (NA 1983)
Article: Causing Death And Allowing To Die
Author: David J. Atkinson

Causing Death And Allowing To Die

David J. Atkinson

‘Medical ethics are not separate from but part of other ethics’. Such was the theme of one of Ian Kennedy’s Reith Lectures (1980).1 Some medical decisions, he says, are matters of technical skill, while others are moral and ethical. They are decisions about what ought to be done in the light of certain values.

I repeat this to offer a justification - as it may be felt that I need to - for my own tentative entry into this area, not as a doctor, but as someone who believes that moral theology is not irrelevant to medical decisions.

This paper will concentrate primarily, but not exclusively, on the very sensitive, and difficult, area of the selective treatment of handicapped new-born babies, brought into the headlines again last year in the trial of Dr Leonard Arthur. There was much understandable annoyance expressed at the time concerning the interference of non-medical people into the debate;2 indeed it was implied during the trial that ‘medical ethics’ are somehow an entity on their own. But such decisions as Dr Arthur believed it right to make cannot be made without some view of the nature of man and his destiny, his living and his dying, and without a particular method of reaching decisions and a value system on which to base them. That is, there is a moral dimension to medical decisions which may, by definition, not be within the scope of particular medical technical competence. Indeed, such questions seem to be addressed to all of us as people.

May I be bold enough to ‘interfere’, therefore, to the extent of seeking to tease out some of the questions left

in my mind by the Judge’s summing-up in the case of Regina v. Leonard Arthur, and then sketch out a theological perspective from which a range of moral responses to these questions can be assessed?

1. Summary Of The Dr Leonard Arthur Case

On the 3rd, 4th, and 5th of November, 1981, Mr Justice Farquharson gave his summing-up at Leicester Crown Court. He began by noting the enormous importance of the case and saying that ‘it really revolves round the question of what is the duty of a doctor when prescribing treatment for a severely handicapped child suffering from a handicap of an irreversible nature, whose parents do not want that child to survive.’3

The judge later reminded the court that baby John Pearson was born on Saturday morning 28 June, 1980 at Derby City Hospital. It was a normal b...

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