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George Carey’s thoughtless contribution to the ‘assisted dying’ debate

12 July 2014

Well, I think nobody really assumed that George Carey was the brightest button on the bench of bishops but the old bumbler has still managed to put a rocket into the debate on assisted suicide. By dint of a former Archbishop of Canterbury changing horses on the issue, it has wrecked the notion that there’s some sort of consensus on the Anglican side about this contentious question. Whenever anyone tries to give a Christian account of the matter they’ll be met with the riposte, ah, but that’s not what the Archbishop says.

But what gets me is the notion that it has come as a revelation to poor old George that there are potent arguments from compassion on the assisted dying side. No one who listened to the late Tony Nicklinson’s account of his constricted life, no one who listens, in fact, to a description of anyone with locked-in syndrome, can remain unmoved. But the argument isn’t that there isn’t suffering that could be curtailed by a doctor killing a terminally ill patient. It’s that the effects of the change on a great number of other people will be incalculably damaging.

And in fact, as Jenny McCartney pointed out in her piece on this issue last week, and as the former Archbishop should have acknowledged, the most poignant cases, the ones that most moved him, will not in fact be affected by the Falconer law which is in theory confined to those with six months or less to live. People with locked in syndrome, given proper care, can last longer than six months. So…where would that leave us after a Falconer victory? With an open door, waiting to be pushed open further, that’s where.

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The moment the law explicitly allows doctors to engage in killing (I mean, after birth – abortion is another story), however well motivated, the relationship between doctors and patients changes, and not in a good way. The moment people at the end of their lives feel that by getting a doctor to kill them they can save their family trouble and the state money, you put an intolerable pressure on them to consider that choice. There is an altruistic streak in many of our elderly, whereby they feel they shouldn’t be a burden. With the option of assisted dying, they will be obliged to entertain a notion they should not even have to consider, that they can save other people a lot of trouble by dying. Trouble is, the potential victims of the law are silent and invisible; the proponents all over the BBC.

As for the sneery notion that this is the slippery slope argument, well yes, except that it’s not a dud bit of rhetoric, but based on solid observable evidence from those countries that have introduced assisted dying…they started to help those in intolerable pain, assumed to be at the end of their lives, and in Belgium they’ve now come, in law, for dying children, for those with dementia. Slippery slope? As seen from the bottom, not the top.

That’s the argument against assisted dying which we can all share and atheists can leave me at this point.

As for George’s argument that ‘in strictly observing the sanctity of life, the Church could not actually be sanctioning anguish and pain, the very opposite of the Christian message of hope’ it seems like dud theology. Look, the message of the cross isn’t that suffering is something that should be avoided at all costs. The Christian notion of suffering involves uniting your suffering with that of Christ on Calvary and thereby giving it a very different dimension. Christians do not, at least nowadays, wilfully take suffering on themselves – beyond a bit of fast and abstinence – but they take up their cross when it comes to them. When it comes to suffering their role is to relieve it in the sufferer, not to kill him or her and so do away with it, which is why so many hospices are former or present Christian foundations. On this one, George is wrong, and his rather cleverer, and more thoughtful, successors are right.

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Show comments
  • artful

    Carey has jumped the gun and forced an issue which might best have been left where it was. There’s no fool like an old fool and Carey tops the list.

  • Luke

    A rehashing of the “thin edge of the wedge” argument that sounds more tired, more callous and more dismissive of the reality of end-of-life suffering every time I hear it. If you don’t want assisted dying then feel free to die unassisted but please stop interfering in choices that can legitimately be made by others based upon what is right for them

  • Justin Maxwell

    Blatant giant logical flaw in this article #1 – Show me all the altruistic elderly who don’t need external assistance to die committing suicide off their own tot due to this horrendous pressure to save their family trouble and the state money???

    It’s a daft strawman idea that incapable people will somehow suddenly lose the natural instinct for self-preservation and continued living, while the capable and in chronic pain are somehow managing to choosing not to down all their painkillers. I can’t fathom how anyone puts this idea forward thinking they are being even vaguely rational.

    Blatant logical flaw in this article #2 – Another obvious straw man – having presented the idea that the main problem is the elderly being pressured by themselves and everyone else to hit the big off switch, it seems that Belgium’s experience has been so entirely OPPOSITE to that, that they have concluded their is no reason to withhold the same compassion for younger people. That kinda makes exactly the opposite argument to yours, if you put some effort into thinking it through. As for dementia, providing the decision is made while still of sound mind, please please I want the option to be able to choose that for myself. How horribly cruel to WANT to FORCE me have to live through the tail end of a fatal dementia. THAT is twisted and evil.

  • Samuel Johnson

    Listening to these debates why do I hear the words “will equally serve as a fricassee or a ragout” entering my head? And of course the great, and cynical, ending to Dean Swift’s “Argument against abolishing Christianity”, which puts as the clincher the threat that “the Bank and East-India stock may fall at least one per cent“. This is what you get when you make money a god.

  • Flintshire Ian

    The militant gays never stopped asking for more after legalisation – and they got it – and I am pretty sure that the same will be true with assisted suicide if it becomes legal.

  • artful

    I never had much time for Carey, but I have even less now. Pity in his retirement he doesn’t do something useful instead of meddling in affairs of which he shows little knowledge.

  • DaveyT

    If Christians sincerely believe that we are are all heading for paradise when we die, surely the sooner we shuffle off this mortal coil the better? Is that not so?

  • Brigantian

    Too many separate issues are being mixed up in this debate and the reality is that there should be a public inquiry into the deaths that have already been facilitated before any laws are changed.
    We are all familiar with the constant to and fro arguments about people in a vegetative state being kept alive on life support machines. That is an argument between relatives with false hope and doctors being practical. The individual is not able to make a choice. Most emotionally detached people would tend to back the doctors in those cases.
    Now we are talking about people who are not in a vegetative state having ‘the right to die’ which is an altogether different matter. We all live in different states of discomfort at various times of our lives, from which we may or may not recover. Other people may not want us to recover for their own reasons and continually remind us of the release that death would bring. No one knows whether an illness is terminal until the sufferer is dead.
    Several of my own relatives have been ‘helped’ to die over a period of decades and I know what happened to them was not unique. The worst involved a great aunt who had the misfortune to be fit and sprightly and outlive her sisters, making her the inheritor of a large fortune. My mother’s cousin had married an influential executive with a leading multi-national, who had sent his children to public schools he could not afford and wanted them to have private chambers at Cambridge. In the blink of an eye the great aunt was confronted by a solicitor with a ready made will and once it was signed whisked off to an NHS terminal illness ward, despite not having any known illness. Within a month she had starved to death in temperatures constantly kept above 80 deg.F. No one else in the family had either the time, money or influence necessary to rescue her.
    Carey constantly speaks like someone who spends too much time listening or watching the BBC and its highly biased reporting on any issue. He should get out more and talk to real people.

  • Paul

    The comparison with abortion is not inappropriate. The vast majority of Down’s Syndrome (Trisomy 21) sufferers in the UK do not make it out of the womb alive – on identifying a probable case (oe after amniocentesis) the first reaction of the medical team isn’t to offer information about support groups and possible medical interventions, the first response is to offer an abortion. An offer that is often repeated several times by different professionals.

    To what extent will this offer of ‘assisted death’ become the default response upon diagnosis of advanced disease rather than something you request?

  • catalinda8

    I don’t think I should have to justify my reasons for wanting to die to anyone. If my reason is that I don’t want to be a burden to my family, then that should be my choice. I don’t see why someone else gets to make the decision as to whether my reason is good enough for them. Especially church people, who are often the slimiest and most amoral of all.

  • Jupiter

    The BBC are being extremely enthusiastic about assisted dying. Maybe we could help by bumping off some BBC numpties. See how they like that.

  • Winston Burchill

    Interesting that the Speccie appear to have a problem with a man who is a genuine conservative.

  • Holly

    Mr H had a CT scan early last year.
    From May to August(2013) he was rushed into hospital with SERIOUS breathing difficulties, with recurring ‘chest infections’ four times.
    On the fourth hospital stay he was talking to his respiratory Dr, and told him that another respiratory Dr had offered him another CT scan. The Dr he was speaking to said there was “no point”, as the CT scan from early 2013 had shown the cancer was visible again. This was the first time Mr H knew of this.
    After several staff did their ‘headless chicken’ impersonations trying to locate the notes of the offending scan, it was discovered that, because the bod taking the scan couldn’t get the camera past the tumour, he did not make any notes.
    The respiratory Dr disappeared from the face of the earth, and was not answering his telephone.
    I was contacted and informed that Mr H was very ‘upset’, and could I come asap.
    Once back home, we were visited by an ‘end of life’ ‘expert’, and several drugs were ordered, and DNR forms were filled out.
    This was so traumatic for BOTH of us, and me being me ripped up the DNR form,
    told Mr H they are ‘just playing with our heads’.
    The most we got was an apology.

    Today, one year on, Mr H is on cancer treatment tablets,(until they stop working) and the ‘end of life’ drugs are still in the cupboard.

    If some people had had their way Mr H would be long gone.
    I selfishly want him around for years, and Mr H does not want to die.

    There are cases where the kindest thing to do is let your loved one go, (and if Mr H was unable to eat, talk, etc, I would be the first to let him go) but there are so many more, where you have to fight the rubbish system, tooth & nail to get the proper treatment we are all entitled to.

    Now, IF I was obese, I would be utterly ashamed of myself that I could be taking away vital resources from others, who are ill, through no fault of their own, just because I do not control what I stuff in my face with, day in, day out.

    • Alexsandr

      but you care for Mr H. Some will see their relative as a nuisance or consider a possible inheritance. Thats the difference. there are some truly horrid people out there.
      Of you dont believe me consider how many are in a care home and never see their relatives?

  • tomgreaves

    What a dismal and thoroughly dark view of human nature these religious cultists peddle. Our right and freedom to choose when to die, assisted by a professional, is denied us because of the damage this would do to those who do the assisting. What utter and total rubbish. At bottom, these religious cultists along with the politically correct brigade, are guided by their fears and live without awareness of the unconscious forces that drive their views. They are fearful of life, death and nature and are not ready to accept responsibility for the guidance of reason

  • HookesLaw

    Firstly we are no talking about ‘killing’ people we are talking about assisting the terminally ill to die peacefully. In her dim tirade – a feature increasingluy common amongst Speccy correspondents – nowhere does the hysterical McDonaugh actually report what Carey said or cover the topic rationally.

    As the BBC reports … ‘Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey says he will support
    legislation that would make it legal for terminally ill people in England and Wales to receive help to end their lives.”terminally ill’. People may approve or not the legislation, but it should be described properly.

    • Emulous

      My question to you is this:
      Who defines ‘terminally ill?’
      There is an old lady in our village who has some kind of low grade cancer who has been telling us she is terminally ill for 18 months now.
      She ran the cake stall at our village fayre a couple of weeks ago.
      No one in the village would like to see her bumped off although her ne’er do well son from London implies that she has had her three score years and ten when he comes down to sponge off her.

      • HookesLaw

        Two doctors tell you that you are terminally ill and would die within 6 months.
        I would imagine that does not trigger some sudden injection by a loony doctor. The question arises how the situation is then managed. Assising someone who is terminally ill to die would firstly apply if the person requested assistance. Then doctors would have to agree and of course would only assist if the situation became unbearable in some way for the person dying.

        • Alexsandr

          how do you protect the vulnerable and the subserviant. Too many old people would hate to be a burden and if persuaded by someone with an ulterior motive would sign away their lives. I can see many people whose life has become inconvenient or expensive being nagged to be killed. Sorry, to me its a charter for murder.
          I have recently watched a relative fade away. In an expensive care home. How could a moral person even ask that question, but I bet there are some b@starts who would not shirk from it.

          • disqus_JXTaH3N9kU

            Don’t get people to sign stuff when they are old and vulnerable. Do it much earlier. I would sign any paper anyone cares to give me right here and now that stipulates the conditions under which I would like to die, please. I will get thirty, forty, fifty people to sign it as witnesses if you like. And I will update it every so often. If we can do this with wills, I see no reason why we can’t do it in these circumstances.I watched my mother die in misery two years ago. She wasn’t inconvenient, I didn’t need her money, I just didn’t want to see her suffer. I, nor anyone else, did anything to hasten her end but I guarantee she would have given anything to have had the chance to have signed such a document in her fit and healthy years. Yes, there are people who would still take advantage. But if we only ever did things when people couldn’t or wouldn’t take advantage we would never do anything.

        • Tom M

          You neatly skipped over the people referred to in the article who are not terminally ill, as in six months to live, but kept alive indefinitely in an impossible condition.
          The other point lightly touched upon is your comment
          “… if the situation became unbearable in some way for the person dying….” Which makes the decision clearly subjective but what whose criterea are to be used?
          Whilst I agree some legislation needs to be enacted to provide for all of these cases it is nevertheless a fact that if legislation exists then people will be, without doubt, pressured into terminating their own life.

          • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

            I reply only to keep my response near the top of the thread.
            For a while at least.

            First me: I am getting on bit: nearer 80 than 70.
            I had a period in 2005 where I really thought my time was up.
            I was anxious and frightened but after a month or two of feeling so ill I began to become indifferent to the future..
            I did have tests of various kinds but nothing specific was found.

            So what is the general point you may legitimately think.
            Well..if something terminal had been discovered I and I suspect others in the same situation wouldn’t have been bothered too much about a possible planned end.

            I might not have been too well disposed to those who thought I should continue suffering in order to comply with their moral stance.

            Whatsmore being practical many would not hasten the end of the terminally ill by active means but by passive ones.
            Neglect and indifference. causing difficult to bear isolation.

        • Jonathan Sidaway

          Yes, palliative care of the essence. And it seems to me that the bill fails to take into account the patient’s request having been occasioned by pressure from relations. Personal experience has shown me that physicians can tend to look at the illness rather than at the patient’s whole situation, which may include interested parties. And doctors might themselves be subject to such pressure – unlikely, of course, but this would be a bad law precisely because it gives more scope to such pressure. And we have the requirement of two doctors’ agreement. Very good. The potential difficulties for good doctors and the opportunities for bad doctors are illustrated mutatis mutandis by the bullying and abuse of the peer review system in the Climategate affair and afterwards. I guess that the law could generate regulations designed to prevent all this. Very good. But the umpteen social services cases over the last two decades have illustrated the possible gap between regulatory intention and regulatory effect. And as ever with the NHS there is the issue of regulatory cost as the price that frontline care pays.

          • Brigantian

            Doctors are very much ‘subject to such pressure’. My father’s GP just happened to be the wife of a property developer who saw my father’s home as his quick profit. They were offered the house by a woman who falsely claimed to be my father’s carer but who was unaware he had given me a valid will.

        • Brigantian

          Surely we already have hospices who provide palliative care for the dying? We also read regularly of people who go into a hospice to die enjoying miracle recoveries. One of my neighbours now has artificial knees and hips because he insisted on having them, as soon as he started to feel aches and pains playing football at the age of 50 ! Doctors at first refused then gave in because of his constant moaning. The same thing could easily happen with assisted suicide.

    • Holly

      I agree that families should be able to let their loved ones go in peace, and I find it so cruel that we force them to go through years of unnecessary emotional and physical torment.
      Each individual case should go before a judge, and the judge should have the power to agree/disagree with the patient and the family.
      I do not believe it should be left up to the discredited medical profession alone to make this sort of decision, and they have no one to blame for my total mis-trust but themselves.

      • Alexsandr

        nice idea but how to you guard against unscrupulous families. Once an error is made you cant undo it.

        • Holly

          That would be for the judge to determine, which, after that Liverpool gateway, mid Staffs, & umpteen other medical establishments, shoddy idea of ‘caring’ for folks, is a much better option.
          Neglect happens in our beloved NHS hospitals regularly, from maternity right through to elderly care.
          If we can’t get the beginning of life right, how are we going to handle all the problems at the end of it.
          We have a lot more experience of birth behind us, than we do in caring for entire generations of old folks.
          We are not going to be able to deal with it in a ‘caring’ way.
          Sadly, in the not too distant future, we are going to have to make some ‘un-natural’ and seemingly callous decisions.
          Maybe, by NOT giving people boob jobs, gastric bands, tummy tucks, and any other vanity projects, on the NHS it could save a few bob.
          Personally I would much rather the money goes to research for new antibiotics, MS, and all the other cruel cruel diseases.
          Obesity can be sorted BEFORE it occurs, for next to nothing financially, but effort and discipline from the prospective ‘patient’.
          Just wait for the screams when they fail to come out of the anaesthetic, or get a nasty wound infection that today’s antibiotics can’t fix, because the bugs have outsmarted us.

          • Alexsandr

            well we used to let judges decide on life and death questions -i.e the death sentence. One of the major arguments against the death sentence was miscarriages of justice.
            so if we accept that judges are fallable for the death sentence, how come they suddenly become always right for assisted dying?

  • Irene Ogrizek

    Wonderful post. I suspect also that with the popularity of the current Catholic pope, dear old George may see this as a way of inducing followers back to church. We forget that that men of the cloth can be as flawed and competitive as the rest of us. This is indeed a dangerous precedent. The dabate is raging here in Canada too.

    • Emulous

      Brilliant:-The anorexia analogy is helpful here. Where does choice come from when young women are encouraged to equate normal body weight with being fat? Where is the threshold for pathology when young anorexics are encouraged, via media images, to distort their thinking? And if we can accept that young women are encouraged to dislike their own bodies, how can we not see see that elderly individuals, especially women, are being encouraged to hate their own lives? The CIBC Guaranteed Life Assurance commercial, a slide of which is below, is of a late-middle-aged woman who states that she and her offstage husband want to leave something for their children and not be a burden. Apparently it’s not their style.

  • Jonathan Sidaway

    The whole debate is unnecessary. There is absolutely no need for anyone to be in intolerable pain at the end of their lives. The failure to provide proper palliative care – as happened to my nonagenarian father a few years ago – is, as Andrew Brown remarks in his typically astute way in this week’s Church Times, a bureaucratic difficulty: in my father’s case the failure to note the evidence of scans and an enthusiasm for pointless intervention rather than pain control. Falconer will inevitably issue in a murderer’s charter: those people with expensive habits and a pliant, aged parent, for instance. And for those driven to distraction by the lack of palliative care and by the plight of their relation, who therefore get carried down this awful avenue, there will remain a legacy of guilt even worse than the burden currently carried by those witnessing the terminal illness of a loved one: it is only natural that people wish the patient would die soon – and simultaneously feel guilty about that very wish. Personally, I think we are called upon to suffer with our suffering beloved; anything else feels to me like an excess of tidyness in human affairs. Falconer is deeply creepy and must be resisted.

    • Portendorfer

      You are only too right.
      I was told by a Consultant at my Fathers last hospital appointment that tablets and injections could ameliorate any forseeable decline in his condition.
      I could no more let him speed his goodbye than allow myself to orchestrate my own goodbye

    • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

      I would simply ask you to note that lack of pain is not a valid response to the difficulty.

      Being unable to stand and lying for long periods with consequent bed sores, going blind, going deaf, double incontinence, experiencing your body literally withering away, periods of metal confusion and halliciantion all can occur without pain.
      All destined to increase in severity

      Is existing like that ‘living’ ?

      • Jonathan Sidaway

        … No, and I saw my mother through exactly what you describe last year – but at the risk of seeming to sidestep a conversation, I am talking about what would make a bad law – it will license situations where people are subject to criminal suasion – and you are talking about what makes a bad life. The two things are categorically different. The way in which Falconer can be discussed ethically – whereas there is not a lot of argument about the nature of ‘fraud’, for instance, just whether it can be proven – indicates that it is a category mistake Bill.
        As with abortion – and am definitely not an RC by the way; this is not really a religious matter despite the efforts of certain sorts of atheist and rationalist (I can be both or [n]either of those at will) to make it so – as with abortion, I believe this one will get through and, as someone seems to remark in this thread about Belgium, become ever more permissive; the original criteria for abortion were strict, yet now it is on demand.
        Persons of a certain sort of conscience will leave the medical profession because of Falconer and the lives of those wanting care not death will become yet more difficult. ‘Choice’ is the only moral option in economic and fiscal matters – I am more a libertarian than not – but when legalized in matters of life and death it tramples on contrary choices because law and conscience will at some point conflict, law not being in the business of such fine distinctions; some people like the Falconer bill because they take a Soviet-style line on Christianity for instance: they believe in choice but not freedom, however much they prate of ‘freedom of choice.’
        People who wish to shorten the stage of life you describe can make a living will (I have); with perfect reasonableness, people with power of attorney are regularly asked whether they wish their dying power-granter to be resuscitated (I have been asked that twice in the last three years); versions of the Liverpool pathway are doubtless still practised and although I personally know of a case where the start of that pathway was honestly misjudged, I am in general agreement with that sort of approach to the end of life; there is no need for this bill.

  • Portendorfer

    I have a 94 year old father in very much failing health but on good days he is a joy to myself, my wife, my children and my grandchildren.
    On a bad day he muses on the burden he poses to us all.
    My fear is that with Carey’s law he would get together with his GP and deprive us of the joy of his life.

    • HookesLaw

      Pardon me? Is he terminally ill? Is he due to die within 6 months? If not then the proposed law would not cover him and you are in no position to comment on what may be right until you see your father (God forbid) in some form of painful debilitating death throes. This is the dilemma that many face.

      • Kitty MLB

        Well said , I had a relative who at 86 had a full life.
        A Christian, mountain climber, mathematics professor
        obsessed with steam trains and wrote poetry.

        He had the big C for a number of years and clearly
        suffering much pain.Doctors kept pumping him
        with drugs and after an operation he decided he’d
        had enough and wanted to shuffle off this mortal coil.

        He just stopped eating and drinking,and refused to
        take medication and soon past away ( he was in a
        nursing home) Did he not have that right?

        • Alexsandr

          yes but he didnt get help to die from someone else.

          • Chris Morriss

            But he should have been able to. Having to commit slow suicide by refusing to drink and suffering the agonies of death by dehydration is not merciful in any way.

      • RobertC

        Surely, HookesLaw, you should know how elastic the Law becomes over time?

  • LaurenceBoyce

    “Trouble is, the potential victims of the law are silent and invisible; the proponents all over the BBC.”

    That is so one-eyed. Those countless numbers who might wish, at this moment, to end their painful lives are also silent and invisible.

    • McClane

      ‘Those countless numbers who might wish, at this moment, to end their painful lives are also silent and invisible’

      And I am one of them. Not to the same extent as some, but I know that I will inevitably die from complications arising from this particular condition.

      I also know that tomorrow is another day and brings different things. So if, at this moment, I might wish to end my painful life the last thing I want is an ex-archbishop, an ex-flatmate of Tony Blair’s and the BBC encouraging me to do it.

      Let us not also forget that Carey is not just an ex-archbishop in England but also in Africa, Australasia and North America. He should have thought more carefully before he spoke. He should simply have said nothing.

    • Samuel Johnson

      That is not an argument for killing them. That is an argument for responding with care and love.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Countlessnumbers? How do you know? Or are you just guessing?

  • In2minds

    George Carey, “the old bumbler”, he’s a genius compared to Rowan Williams!

  • JDale

    ” Whenever anyone tries to give a Christian account of the matter they’ll be met with the riposte, ah, but that’s not what the Archbishop says.”

    That’s as maybe, but the more important point is that Christians don’t get to tell the majority of society how to lead or lives (or our deaths), so it really is of no importance whether they are united one way or the other, or whether in fact some of them refuse to adhere to dogma and make their own informed choice – unlikely as that may be.

    • Paddy S

      Yes because the liberal atheist positions have added so much to society since 60s that we cannot overlook:
      – Huge increase in abortions.
      – Decline in marriage
      – Rise in Divorce for any reason
      – Rise in illegitimacy that is unheard of in mankinds history.
      – Rise in suicides, and many other mental health issues, the patent holders of anti depressants should make a fortune
      – Collapse in general morality. Have lost count of how many English people I meet in Ireland who say they would not bring up their kids in state schools to be indoctrinated in liberal secular values.
      – Rise in crime.
      – Rise in people behaving like selfish *********.

      I could go on of course.

      • Tim Baker

        Yet hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing to England from Ireland’s bankrupt economy lol

        • Paddy S

          Actually its only thousands – most are going to Oz and New Zealand. And they are going for work not to spend the rest of their lives there. Teachers over there tell me the horrors of teaching in state schools.

  • Drabble

    A superb post.
    It is not just what this may do to society.
    It is also what it might do to those involved in the process: Medical, relative or friend.
    The guilt of the relatives/friends is real and has parallels in relatives of intensive care patients who have been consulted before switching off a ventilator.
    The insensitivisation of medical teams providing the wherewithal will eat away at some doctors and nurses and just possibly lead to bad judgements in others.
    Carey has done a bad bad thing.

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