According to a Times investigation, euthanasia was rife at Gosport War Memorial Hospital. Hundreds of patients, many admitted for a period of respite or rehabilitation, were given potent doses of opioid drugs normally reserved for patients in terminal care.
I know this treatment from my past hospital experience: it toes a delicate line between caring and killing, but is ethically justifiable. Most relatives want their loved one to be relieved of an unnecessarily distressing death as they succumb to cancer or other fatal disease.
At Gosport, consultant physician Jane Barton allegedly ran an industrial-scale killing machine. The police had failed to take whistleblowers seriously. Barton vehemently denies any wrongdoing, but perhaps the practice was so normalised that it no longer seemed ethically dubious.
Professor Brian Jarman, respected health service expert, suggested that this is likely to be happening in many other hospitals, but is not challenged due to fear of speaking out. Is Gosport merely the tip of an iceberg? I have some troubling observations that would support Jarman’s view.
Is Gosport merely the tip of an iceberg?
The cultural context of the NHS is susceptible to instrumentalist, means-to-an-end tidying of the messy complexity of its human material. For all its wonderful, committed practitioners, the system is a bureaucratic, impersonal regime. That would be tolerable if the doctors and nurses were determined to humanise the hospital environment, and most try to do this. However, I am concerned at the changing attitudes of younger trainees entering the NHS.
Younger people studying for a professional career readily declare their values of tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness. This is the idealism of youth, yet to be corrupted by harsh reality. These are good values for working with the sick or mentally disturbed. Intelligent and caring they may be, but some students display a moral perspective that might legitimise the scandal at Gosport.
The alleged Gosport killings have been exposed amidst a societal discourse that is veering far from the Christian sanctity of life. Euphemistically described as ‘assisted dying’, euthanasia has widespread public support, with an active lobby urging a change in law to allow people to have their lives ended at their time of choosing by medico-pharmacological intervention.
Recruits to the nursing and medical professions vary in their moral outlook, but I detect a strong tendency towards a secularist utilitarianism. Life is no longer a gift from God. I have written about the dangers of legalising euthanasia for people with conditions such as dementia, because their quality of life is measured by others. Family members and practitioners might see the continued existence of a person with severe Alzheimer’s disease as futile, and sign the necessary paperwork. And thresholds are likely to be lowered over time.
The alleged Gosport killings have been exposed amidst
a societal discourse that is veering far from the
Christian sanctity of life.
Some of my students passionately agree with me. But there are more who think I’m obstructing progress, and the majority tend to go with the flow. The permissiveness that led to a massive abortion industry is now threatening the old. Collectivist utilitarianism has trumped the Kantian categorical imperatives of deontology.
At risk from secularism are the most vulnerable members of society. We have a real problem with ageism in our culture, and I fear it’s getting worse. In identity politics, the old do not count. Indeed, they are blamed for Brexit, author Ian McEwan suggesting that another vote would surely reverse the EU referendum decision once enough of the blighters are six feet under. Xenophobic bigots who read the Daily Mail – banish them from the earth!
I will leave you with an illustration of the mentality of secularism, from a seminar. A student of mine put forward this extreme view at the seminar. It not shared by his peers, but nobody was outraged. The challenging was left to me, and that suggests that the NHS is prone to more Gosports. I shall paraphrase:
That geriatric ward traumatised me. I can’t understand what the staff are doing. It doesn’t make sense. All these old people with nothing to live for. We had to feed them, just to keep them alive. They are wasting time and space.
(Dr Niall McCrae is a lecturer in mental health, and a writer on social and political affairs. He contributes to The Salisbury Review, The Conservative Woman and Bruges Group website, and has written two books: The Moon and Madness, and Echoes from the Corridors: The Story of Nursing in British Mental Hospitals).