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Poignant story

31 July 2015


IT WAS one of those stories where you were thankful to know the ending. Inside the Ethics Committee (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) is never easy listening, but with suicide as the subject-matter, this was always going to be a tough ride. The only consolation was that the main individual in this complicated narrative was herself a contributor to the programme. The spoiler was necessary; otherwise it would have been too painful to hear.

Inside the Ethics Committee is the Moral Maze for grown-ups. At the heart of this show was a fundamental question: can you make a rational decision to end your own life? This was the question that was raised not only by the simulated committee, meeting for Radio 4 listeners, but also the real committee that met to discuss the case of Samantha, a 22-year-old who, for some years, appeared determined to kill herself.

Despite a history of substance abuse and depression, Samantha was deemed to have sufficient capacity to refuse the treatment recommended for her suicidal impulses, and freely to check out of various medical establishments. Her family resorted to 24-hour private security monitoring: “Every day was a challenge to keep her alive,” her brother said.

The experts admitted that they had only encountered a handful of comparable cases, although there was some disagreement whether Samantha, with her complex background, could be regarded as truly rational. For the psychiatrist Dr Alys Cole-King, the goal of her profession should always be to prevent suicide; but, as the medical ethicist Professor Deborah Bowman pointed out, is it the business of medical professionals to decide whether a condition — physical or mental — is tolerable or not? In the case of Samantha, choice was denied her not by the medics so much as by her family; and, three years on from this crisis, she appears relieved and thankful.

You do not have to spend much time around medical and legal professionals before you start picking up the jargon. And it is this — a loss of linguistic innocence, so to speak, revealing something of a more profound loss of innocence — that made the presenter’s interview with Sarah Wilson on Stephen Nolan (Friday, 5 Live) not only chilling, but poignant.

Ms Wilson is a survivor of the Rotherham child-abuse network. Its modus operandi is only now starting to be understood. The abuse started when she was 11, and the details are horrific. She has written a book about it; but, before that, she must have endured hours of interviews, therapy sessions, and legal encounters, all of which have left their scars.

She talks of “sexual contact”, of “escalation”, and of “perpetrators”. This is the language learned from a system that is inured to circumlocution, and Nolan found himself in the unusual position for a BBC interviewer of translating his guest’s euphemisms into more bracing language.

Even when she tells of the attitude of a police officer to her behaviour, Ms Wilson recoils from authentic language. “A nasty young woman” is what, she says, was said about her. You can bet the words that that police officer used were a good deal less polite.

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