When Virginia Ironside announced that she would smother a child rather than let the child’s suffering continue, the Guardian proclaimed that she “woke the country up” and extolled her “bravery”. In contrast, “her fellow guest, the Rev Joanna Jepson (famous for attempting to prosecute a doctor who carried out a late abortion for “unlawful killing” in 2001), [who] normally keeps a very calm demeanour [let] her face [shoot] open like a startled fish”. However, it is not the portrayal of the courageous, truth-telling progressive versus the fish-brained Christian that’s interesting in the video clip, so much as Ironside’s own reason for doing it: “I think any good mother would”.
How would she know? Well, for one Ironside is a journalist who writes for the Independent. Nothing about her suggests she everywoman. She writes, “where am I at the moment? Single, 65, with one son, who plays in the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain … I don’t fear death, but fear getting old, mad, incapable and gaga.” She is who she is; a person who certainly has a right to lead her own life. But what the Guardian never asks is whether she has a right to lead someone else’s. That is the question at the very heart of the act of smothering someone else. From the context the right of someone to make a life and death decision for another is already a given. The Guardian’s Zoe Williams speaks approvingly of abortion, which “if it prevented an unwanted child or a child being born profoundly disabled … was a good decision that a woman could be proud of”.
Yet who is this other, whose disposition a person could be proud of? When it was unwanted, was it unwanted by itself? What exactly is the role of people on whose behalf other people make decisions of which they can be proud?
Their role it would seem, is to reach and hold onto that stage of development in which no one can make a decision for them. The children, the comatose, the inarticulate, the “old, mad, incapable and gaga” alike share one attribute: they are the subject of decisions made by others that they can be “proud of”. Except as you are in the fullness of your strength, then you are object of other people’s decisions.
It’s a terrible state to be in because as a rule people want to control their own lives, not be at the mercy of others — even they are journalists in the Independent. Young children want to be left alone to make up their minds at the earliest feasible moment. Cultures fight, even to the death, against overlords who want to impose decisions upon them. All around us we see evidence that making decisions for others should be exception, rather than the rule. Ironside herself would probably bridle at any suggestion that Israel should decide the fate of Palestinians. But she automatically assumes that any good mother would suffocate a child in the same circumstances she would.
Yet this is patently untrue. In reality some would and some would not suffocate a sick child; some would hold out for a betterment and a certain percentage of them would succeed. Still others would care for their children to the end, whatever their condition. No one is saying that Virginia Ironside is alone in wanting to suffocate sick children. But one can make the case that not everyone in the real world would; they run the gamut. My mother lives near a couple who gave up their jobs to care for a quadriplegic son. He has learned to operate an adapted computer and works as an engineer. It is not self-evidently true that “any good mother” would put a pillow over a sick child’s face.
Even suicide — killing yourself — is a personal act. When someone makes the decision to kill you, however subjectively noble the intent, it is called murder. “Life isn’t a gift per se“, Ironside declares. But the determination to make that choice should never as a rule, be made by someone else. Much of the political willingness to make casual abortion, euthanasia and eugenics the rule rather than the exception may have less to do with the desire to alleviate suffering than the desire for power. It is at least as much for the convenience of the self-appointed than it is for the other. Humanity is unruly, to the discomfiture of its rulers. Unless individual human lives can be made ‘just so’, then the ornery stubbornness of humanity will always destroy the perfection of the plan. Too many people will continue to live in pain, exhibit their disfigurement, cling to what is believed to be false hope, or make demands on science to produce impossible cures for the Great and the Good to rest easy.
Humanity is a terrible bother. It clamors, weeps, jokes; it raises its hands to the heavens and slumps in the gutter, drunk. It carries dead children for miles upon mother’s backs. It does irrational and sublime things. It chooses suffering and evades it. It endures almost beyond belief. It is ugly, stubborn; it misbehaves. Yet for all its apparent turmoil humanity possesses, in its variety, a collective wisdom that surpasses the smooth patterns of the elite. Virginia Ironside can certainly speak for herself. Her mistake is to imagine she can, of course, speak for others.