Hard questions behind the Morrison-Mills case

By on April 1, 1998

IT’S NOT THE WAY one would choose to have the proverbial 15 minutes of fame but then again that was probably the furthest thing from Nancy Morrison’s mind when she made the fateful decision to inject a dying Paul Mills with nitroglycerin and potassium chloride.

Paul Mills wasn’t just dying, of course. He was in the midst of a prolonged and, at that point, horrible, painful wracking death, that only a sadist would wish on someone.

Nancy Morrison was one of the physicians looking after Mr. Mills. Although not the most frequent in church attendance in recent years, she had been recently married in All Saints Cathedral, Halifax, where she grew up and attended Sunday school with her siblings and cousins, all from church families who are and have been faithful active members of the congregation.

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And although some people dissented, the majority of the church community gathered protectively around Nancy and her family when the storm broke.

Most national media have portrayed the story as a tragedy that has highlighted the issue of euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide. As is so often the case, what the media says has been highlighted is something of its own making and ignorance. The Morrison-Mills case has nothing to do with euthanasia or doctor-assisted suicide. (There was no discussion between patient, family and physician; whatever else it might have been, it was clearly an impulsive act.) But neither does it have to do with murder.

By the time this is printed, the Crown will have decided whether to appeal the decision of Provincial Court Judge Hughes Randall to throw the case out for insufficient evidence to sustain the charge or to take the case directly to trial or to let the judge’s decision stand.

The wise course would be the latter. Dr. Morrison still faces discipline by her self-governed medical bodies. She could lose her licence to practise medicine, although that would be no more constructive than pursuing criminal charges. She is no threat to society and even if she had hastened Mr. Mills’ death – which on the evidence it now seems highly unlikely she did – it was by a couple of hours at most.

The worst she can be accused of is an error in judgement, the real impact of which, had it worked, would have been less than the worst error some other physician makes almost any day in any hospital in this country.

Physicians are human, and despite some of their egos and our placing them on pedestals – and despite the many fine men and women who do wonderful things to bring about healing in the lives of many – they make mistakes.

Those mistakes are often buried. Sometimes they are the result of carelessness, sometimes lack of training or facilities, sometimes because of prolonged undue stress.

In the case of Paul Mills, here was a dying man gasping for air, his throat area mostly gone from the cancer operations. Taken off the respirator, he was heaving about in so hideous a manner, the nurse said it was the worst situation she had seen in her 11 years in intensive care.

The real question to ask is why no one thought to check Mr. Mills’ IV, since for more than two hours before Nancy Morrison arrived on the scene, he had been allegedly pumped full of enough painkillers to put down a herd of elephants.

We might never know what went through Dr. Morrison’s mind next. She might not even know. What seems pretty clear is that she injected Mr. Mills with a compound (a kind of salt) that could have no medical benefit for Mr. Mills and is fatal except in regulated small doses.

Even if Dr. Morrison knows what she intended and even if she intended to kill Mr. Mills at that time, the prevailing circumstances mean that a first-degree murder charge, if technically correct, would only reveal the law to be “a ass, a idiot,” as Dickens’ Mr. Bumble put it.

Manslaughter might be a possible charge. But again, what would it serve? Would it protect the public? Would it deter other physicians from making the same error? Would it help “reform” Nancy Morrison? Would it exact justice on behalf of society?

Although the media have set the wrong issues before us, the case does pose a couple of important and difficult questions. How do we deal with serious errors in judgement that fall outside the criminal justice system? How do we both discipline and restore to the community those who have erred? How is the church community to respond?

And, in this particular case, what questions are raised about the state of palliative care in Canada? How do we view the various members and specialists in health care? What responsibilities do we want to give them, what are our expectations of them and how do they see themselves?

The Morrison-Mills case raises far more questions than have been asked or answered. Punishing Nancy Morrison further is a waste of taxpayers’ money and the talents Dr. Morrison has to offer. It’s not about standing on principles on either side. It’s about our humanity, about how we live and die together. It’s about the grey areas of life which, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise, far outweigh the black and white areas.

Nancy Morrison is a member of our church. So for all of us, it’s not inappropriate to ask, how would Jesus handle this?

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