Colin Norris and the ‘ageing timebomb’

Was the murder of four pensioners by a British nurse a savage expression of today’s devaluation of older people’s lives?

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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Colin Norris, a nurse from Glasgow, was jailed on Tuesday after being found guilty of murdering four elderly patients with lethal doses of insulin while working in two hospitals in the English city of Leeds. Police said that Norris would have killed again if a doctor on the ward had not become suspicious. The judge in the case said that Norris was an essentially lazy man who believed that the elderly simply required too much care.

Though he expressed no motive, it was Norris’s casual attitude towards human life that was most shocking. What is worrying is that his outlook, revealed in evidence presented at the trial, resembles a new trend towards relativising human life. Some human lives, it seems, are worth less than others.

Norris had developed a hatred of elderly women in particular. Police said after the verdicts at Newcastle Crown Court this week that he had targeted ‘frail, elderly women, generally confused and helpless’ whom he regarded as difficult. Norris predicted the time Ethel Hall, one of his victims, would die, and told a staff nurse at Leeds General Infirmary it was ‘just his luck’ as he would have all the paperwork to complete. Each of Norris’s victims was in poor health and could be regarded as a ‘burden to nursing staff’, according to the prosecutor in the case.

However, many others seem to share elements of the attitude expressed by Norris towards the elderly. The idea that human life is a burden is sadly commonplace these days. Such prominent names as scientist James Lovelock, media mogul Ted Turner, the late Jacques Cousteau and Al Gore have pointed to overpopulation as a real problem behind threats to the planet. As an article in the UK Observer stated recently: ‘All the standby buttons and low-energy light bulbs are dwarfed by the pressure of a global population rising by the equivalent of Britain every year.’

As people live longer, there is what has been referred to as the ‘ageing timebomb’, whereby the population ages, leaving fewer workers and more pensioners. Thus, rather than celebrate the fact that, since 1980, men in the UK live an extra five years and women an extra four, experts worry about the burden that so many extra elderly place on the pensions system. The Association of British Insurers, for example, issued a warning about the imminent ‘pensions crisis’.

The elderly are the most obvious target of contemporary misanthropy about human numbers and ‘burdens’. If the population of the world is to be brought down, if costs are to be saved, if ‘quality of life’ is measurable in days and years, the elderly should do the world a favour and die.

The cost factor alone would seem to justify Norris’s actions. The ageing population, as Norris would undoubtedly agree, also increases pressure on health systems throughout the world. The World Health Organisation notes that ‘the steep projected increase in the burden of non-communicable diseases is thought to be largely driven by ageing population combined with the exposure to tobacco and other risk factors, such as obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, and injuries’ (1).

Smokers, the obese and excessive drinkers are all obvious targets for those who would ration healthcare – the elderly, however, not only cost far more in relation to healthcare costs than do the other groups, but, in a world where the value of human life is measured in almost entirely physical terms, the elderly are increasingly seen as a waste of space and money. The findings of a survey of 870 family and hospital doctors conducted by Doctor magazine revealed that one in three doctors felt that the elderly should not be given free treatment if it was unlikely to do them good for long.

Assisted suicide enthusiasts measure ‘quality of life’ in months, and therefore it is easy to note that the elderly have less than the rest of us. Legislation proposed in Britain, modelled after that in Oregon, would allow ‘assisted dying’ as an option for those with a terminal illness and less than six months to live. Organisations such as Dignity in Dying reduce human dignity to the ability to go to the toilet unaided. Should the proposed UK legislation become law, each of us would have a ‘choice’ whether to continue to lead an undignified life, continuing to burden our families and health services with our continued existences. Small wonder that Kaiser Permanente, a large healthcare company in the United States, sent an email to 740 of its affiliated physicians in Oregon, the only state where assisted suicide is legal, asking who would be willing to act as attending physicians for those patients who requested assisted suicide.

What this reflects is not only the perverse and miserabilist preoccupation with rationing at a time when we are all getting richer, but the reduction of human life to physical terms. A society that assigns no value or moral worth to human life destroys the meaning of human life and, ironically, the shared basis of that society.

British philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock wrote in 2004 at the age of 80: ‘I am not ashamed to say some lives are more worth living than others.’ She claimed that she would not like to be a nuisance to her family. But the worth of those killed by Norris – or the worth of Baroness Warnock – can have no measure except in individual terms. An elderly person, measured in moral characteristics, may be worth five younger people, despite the fact that she has less than six months to live. Equally, individuals have complex and multifaceted moral worth that reflects the estimation of many others as well as their own sense of self-worth.

Fortunately, the law maintains that in cases of murder every victim’s life is worthwhile. Thus Norris received a sentence at least comparable to that of Steve Wright, who was found guilty last month of coldly murdering five women who worked as prostitutes in Ipswich, England. But with so little value placed on elderly lives these days, how much longer can this uncompromising disgust at the murder of older people remain?

Kevin Yuill is lecturer in American studies at the University of Sunderland. He is the author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

Previously on spiked

Kevin Yuill said no thanks to the ‘right to die’ and argued that those supporting euthanasia gave cultural approval to suicide. Phil Mullan explained how talk of a ‘pensions crisis’ displayed a mean-spirited attitude towards the elderly. Frank Furedi argued that advocates of population control exhibited a lack of respect for human life. Or read more at spiked issue Euthanasia.

(1) Social development and ageing: crisis or opportunity?, WHO

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Topics Politics


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