Key moral questions come straight into focus when you read about the case reported in The Sun where a decision was made in a closed court to end the life of someone in a permanent vegetative state.
The decision was not made public for three months in a departure from the normal principle of open justice that underpins our legal system.
If you are in a vegetative state it means that you are awake but you do not show signs of awareness.
This means that you might open your eyes, breathe and respond to some touch or noise but do not give meaningful responses or show signs of experiencing emotion.
A lot of brain injured people end up in a permanent vegetative state. Almost all of them never come out of it.
The amount we know about the brain is severely limited… the amount we know about life itself… well…
To make matters even more difficult, the person in the permanent vegetative state has no ability to communicate what they would want to happen, so there needs to be a decision by other people on their behalf – judges, doctors, family members – about what should be done. Whether life should be prolonged or food and hydration should be stopped.
Suffice to say it is an incredibly complicated area where opinions, facts, morals and beliefs all weigh in and judgements should be carefully scrutinised.
I have had clients whose families would be horrified to even begin thinking about letting their family member die. Other people lean on their religious beliefs to make a decision. The family in this case, supported letting their relative die.
My view is that if such a big decision is going to be made on behalf of someone who can’t speak for themselves then it should be open to public scrutiny. Not because there were signs of foul play in this case nor because this decision was wrong, just because if a decision is literally life or death and it is being made on behalf of someone, surely we as the public should be able to know the facts and question the decision as it is being made.
My experience of working with brain injured people makes very clear that it doesn’t discriminate. You can be rich, poor, black, white, gay or straight and suffer one… Basically… it could be you.
So if you were in the unfortunate position of needing someone to make such a decision on your behalf, wouldn’t you want to know that everything had been done to make sure the right decision was made?