What does the sympathetic reaction to a father's 'mercy killing' of his depressed daughter say about our attitude to life?
The tragic death of Sarah Lawson at the hands of her father shocked the nation. Even more shocking, however, are some of the responses to this case in the press.
Sarah Lawson, by all accounts a bright, attractive but severely depressed 22-year-old woman, swallowed 30 temazepan tablets. Her father James put on her favourite Bette Midler song, ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’, and lay down beside her, waiting for her to die. When Sarah awoke, she asked her father to go to an all-night shop to get some painkillers. Not wanting to leave the house, he found a plastic bag with which to suffocate her. He finally killed her by placing a pillow over her head.
James Lawson’s actions were supported by his estranged wife and many newspaper commentators. The image projected, after all, is familiar: the individuals involved were powerless, the system (in this case, the NHS) had failed them. Some even lauded what Lawson had done. Simon Blackburn, a Cambridge philosopher writing in the Independent, called it ‘the action of a strong, brave man’.
The court accepted Lawson’s plea of guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Unless on the jury, we cannot judge James Lawson’s specific motives. We must insist, however, that he committed a crime and was wrong in his actions, even if in the midst of emotional despair that most of us can barely imagine, and even if his punishment is up for discussion.
To blame the inadequacy of healthcare for Sarah’s death suggests that responsibility for one’s actions is outdated and inappropriate. It blurs the line between James (the carer) and his daughter (the patient) in saying that both are victims of mental illness. The message comes across loud and clear: ‘We can’t cope.’
Sarah’s death wasn’t ‘inevitable’, as some pundits suggested. The only inevitability is that the idea that we are all victims of mental illness creates an impossible need for support services. It must leave a bitter taste in the mouths of those who struggle – on their own – to care for physically disabled or mentally ill children. ‘We’ll understand you (and help you) only if you give up.’
The worst response, however, was the one that discussed Sarah’s death as the happiest conclusion to this scenario. A suicide attempt – Sarah had made them before and swallowed the pills herself – is not the same as a successful suicide. The suspicion that maybe the person who unsuccessfully tries to kill herself is crying out for help must always be present. How sure can anybody be that the attempted suicide really does want to end it all?
In sales of timeshares and insurance there exists a ‘cooling-off period’. With death, the ‘cooling-off period’ is another matter altogether. There is no changing your mind or second chance. It is reasonable to suppose that death can never be a rational answer to physical or emotional pain. The proper response is treatment of that pain.
Sarah has now been robbed of all hope: hope of getting better, of overcoming her illness, of living out a life that might have been grand or ordinary, made up of the usual combination of pain and pleasure, of success and disappointment. Who knows whether she might have, like Andrew Solomon, written a book about her depression? Solomon dedicated his book, The Noonday Demon, to his father, who gave him ‘life not once, but twice’.
We can treat this case as the tragedy that it undoubtedly is, but let nobody be under the illusion that Lawson’s action was anything but criminal.
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