Law and Life

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying both highlight, in different ways, the difficulty many of us have in thinking through the relationship between law and life. We no longer agree on the ethical basis of society, which makes it more difficult still.

I was revolted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder but I must confess to uneasiness about some reactions to the Dobson/Norris trial. It is partly that I have difficulty with the dropping of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle which allowed the trial to take place in the first place and the outpouring of visceral hatred in the name of justice which followed*. I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same — and that holds whether the skin colour we are talking about is black, brown, or white.

Are we in danger of saying, for example, black equals good, white equals bad, or seeing racism where we should perhaps see rather brutality and lawlessness? Have we lost our sense of society being greater than the sum of its parts? Or are we taking the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ to its logical conclusion and favouring some more than others, instead of maintaining that we are all equal under the law? Perhaps a lawyer would comment on this point.

I don’t believe, however, that law is something we can leave to lawyers alone. The laws a society makes for itself, the way in which it applies them, the penalties it exacts for breaking them, are all shapers of that society. They have a directive force even when they don’t affect us individually with compulsive force. What happens when emotion comes into play? Is there a danger that we react to the emotion rather than to the law? It will be interesting to see how the Dobson/Norris trial affects the way in which the Metropolitan Police deals with future murder cases. It will also be interesting to see how the various groups and action bodies that work to eliminate racism deal with future incidents.

What of the Commission on Assisted Dying? It is being reported in the media as a panel of experts which has concluded there is a ‘strong case’ for legislation to allow assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. It was apparently funded by those who are working for a change in the law, which, if true, calls in question its claim to being objective. Less contentious because demonstrable may be the fact that Canon James Woodward has dissented from the Commission’s conclusions, and the BMA refused to take part at all.

How we think about life will inevitably be translated into law. Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have. Can we condemn murder but permit ‘assisted dying’ without getting into a strange moral quagmire where law no longer protects the weak but serves rather to advance the interests of the strong — those who can argue better than we can, or who can make decisions they have decided we can’t or shouldn’t? Ultimately, all these questions are personal, not just abstractions. Is my life as a white woman worth less than yours as a black man or either of our lives worth more than hers as an unborn child or his as an octogenarian? Remember, how we answer those questions will be reflected in our laws. What a responsibility we  bear!

*I am not, in any way, disputing the verdict. Like everyone else, I would like to see all who are guilty of his murder brought to trial and sentenced for their terrible crime.


15 thoughts on “Law and Life”

    • Actually, the CofE already has replied to the Falconer Commission — an excellent submission, entirely in accord with Digitalnun’s own comments. It was written by Dr Brendan McCarthy, the Archbishops’ adviser on Health Policy, with assistance from a panel which included Nigel Biggar (Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford), who has written an excellent book on euthanasia entitled Aiming to Kill.

  1. “Commission on assisted dying”……..”panel of experts” ; Surely the only people in history who can be considered ‘experts’ on death are those who have died and been resurrected, to be able to provide a point of view. This would seem to limit expertise to Jesus and those others in the bible who were recorded as being returned to life. As the greatest ‘expert’ then must be Jesus, today’s experts would do well to look for answers to the question in prayer.

  2. Thank you for your comments. I wrote this early this morning, before the Twittersphere was properly awake. A reader has correctly pointed out that I should have written ‘seeing ONLY racism’ rather than simply ‘seeing racism’. (I think people know where I stand on racism.) Some excellent commentary is now appearing in the blogosphere which gives substance to my early-morning unease about the way in which the BBC was reporting the ‘assisted dying’ issue on its web site. The Anglican Bishop of Carlisle has issued a statement which sums it up neatly: I also commend Stuart’s pingback link above to his Church eBlog and especially the poem by Elizabeth Jennings.

  3. Thank you for a thought-provoking piece and I am very glad that you have raised these issues in this way. I have only one comment, and it’s from my lay (and very partial) understanding of the law on racially motivated crime. My understanding of the nature of ‘aggravation’ which comes into play when there is a racist element to the crime of murder is that it effectively recognises that more than one crime has been committed here. The crime (and sin) of murder is accompanied and motivated by the additional crime (and sin) of racial hatred. If my understanding is correct, this means that the life of a black person is not seen in law as more valuable than that of a white person, but that the victim of a racially motivated murder has suffered both the crime and the particular kind of hatred (including the weight of a history of exploitation that lies behind it) that motivated and aggravated it. From a moral point of view, there are clearly other kinds of killing that include a different kind of aggravation and some, but not all, of these are recognised in law.
    I’m not sure if this thought adds much, but it seemed to me to be one way of thinking about the distinction.

  4. I don’t see anyone claiming that murdering someone from racial hatred is worse than murder for another reason (I took that as what you meant by “I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same”) Murder under any circumstances, for any motivation, is a terrible crime, a terrible sin, and there’s nothing to be gained by weighing one against the other or adding severity scores. Still, racially motivated murder is a particular sort of brutality, and I think we need to acknowledge that, acknowledge that Stephen Lawrence was a black man, and killed because of it, that it’s taken eighteen years for his parents to achieve this faded sort of justice, that a whole generation has grown up in Eltham in that time, that black men are 15x more likely that whites to be stopped and searched by the police. So may he rest in peace, may he rise in glory.

  5. Hmmmm… I don’t see that we can place a racially motivated murder and an assisted suicide in the same moral category. I am not particularly in favour of assisted suicide, I would rather see good palliative care. However, I do understand that assisted killing is grounded in motives of compassion in the face of the likelihood of extreme suffering and a belief that it gives an individual dignity to allow them to have control over the time of their death (however misguided one may think this is) while a racially aggravated murder is grounded in quite different motives – of contempt, hatred and a belief that that person counts for nothing.

    I don’t think we can conflate the two, nor do I think that it is fair to those who support assisted dying to do so.

  6. In some cases, I’m sure we’ll have to agree to disagree, but I’m truly grateful for your comments and reflections. The point of the post is, of course, the last paragraph. I am not equating the murder of Stephen Lawrence with the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying but using both to ask questions about how we frame and understand law. I think that’s important, and am very glad to see such thoughtful responses on the blog.

  7. It seems to me that we have failed to learn lessons from the Holocaust. I pray for the repose of Stephen Lawrence’s soul and for the repose of all those murdered in the Shoah simply because they belonged to a particular race.

    As far as ‘assisted dying’ is concerned, I think the fact that the BNA refused even to participate is very significant and tells us a great deal.

  8. I share with you, the unease about the hype around the Lawrence trail. Moreover, I think laying racism at the feet of white people rather detracts from the true nature of racism. The most racist people I have come across haven’t always been white – in London Bangladeshi vs. Pakistani or Afro-Caribbean vs. African or Pole vs. Rumanian… this list is endless and in truth says more about our need to belong and our passion for identifying difference.

    You note: ‘Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have….’ However (writing as someone who has worked in palliative care for many years – and has lost a nephew to suicide and a friend to murder) I think there is a lack of debate – and moral leadership – on when it is immoral to artificially extend life. Is this too a right we don’t have? The right to play God… When someone is in the depths of dementia, should they really be given ‘life extending’ treatment (e.g. the flu jab or heart medication, or treatment for cancer etc.)? And can we – from the safety of our studies or monasteries – glibly place burdens on people we have not carried ourselves? I am certainly no fan of euthanasia, but neither do I think it is the role of medicine to extend life beyond its natural span or where its quality is negligible. (And someone please, please don’t chime in here and say ‘end of life care is very good’ or ‘people can live with horrific disabilities’: yes it is and they can (my best friend is a wheelchair user and a high flyer) – but having worked as a hands on carer in hospices and for the Cheshire foundation and working latterly as a palliative care social worker – I can assure you there are worse things than death).

    There needs to be a reasoned debate on the role of medicine and its limitations and uses… Alas the pro-life lobby have got a little muddled about this at present.

    Peter Denshaw

  9. Thank you, Peter, for your contribution. I find very helpful the distinction the Church makes between ordinary and extraordinary means of extending life and our responsibility to exercise informed judgement. The Church does not teach that life should be preserved at all cost, which, if it were better known and understood, might spare many people terrible burdens of guilt and anxiety.

    If anyone wants a good short summary, with an indication of how the teaching has developed, see Fr Kevin O’Rourke O.P., ‘Development of Church Teaching on Prolonging Life’ and its footnotes,

  10. Excellent post and discussion. Only have time to skim but look forward to returning to read Fr. O’Rourke’s piece. Important topic.

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