I suppose, on balance, it may be considered a good thing that I rarely got the chance to watch films or TV shows before last Spring: it means there’s been something to do and something to talk about in the absence of all those things I used to do and talk about. One day, I may run out of shows to watch, but in the meantime:
A little while back, I finished watching The Children Act. With my daughter who, aged 17½, is pretty much exactly the same age as ‘Adam’, the boy in the film. Adam is not the film’s subject, of course (though it would have made it easier to write that last sentence if he had been). He is its object: the object of other people’s arguments, emotions and decision-making and the object of the viewer’s interest. He struggles throughout to be the subject of his own life-story, or indeed his death-story; it’s up to you, having read this blog, to decide whether, perhaps, he ultimately manages.
Adam, an intelligent, articulate, personable young man with leukaemia is the only son of two JWs. Their faith – which Adam insists is his faith – obligates him to refuse a blood transfusion without which he will almost certainly die. His refusal is grounded in 3 Biblical injunctions. These injunctions, like almost all Biblical passages, are open to multiple interpretations; the conclusion that a blood transfusion is forbidden is not inevitable, but neither is it far-fetched – his refusal is perfectly good theology. Importantly, though, his refusal is not only articulated in theological language; it is a visceral, emotional refusal: mixing his blood with a stranger’s will “contaminate” him.
Mrs Justice Fiona May (the actual subject of the film) listens to testimony from the (white, male) hospital doctor who wishes to give Adam a transfusion arguing, amongst other things, that it will be very hard on the medical team if they watch him die (he does not consider how hard it will be for Adam to live in the wake of a non-consensual medical procedure); she listens to the advocacy of the hospital’s appointed (white, male) barrister and the Legal Aid-funded (black, female) barrister who represents Adam’s family. She listens to the testimony of Adam’s father. (Adam’s mother is silent in the courtroom.) She listens to the testimony of Adam’s Guardian, then makes the unprecedented decision to go and visit Adam in hospital, claiming that she needs to ascertain whether or not this child on the brink of adulthood is capable of making an informed, autonomous decision to refuse the transfusion.
Adam is (as I noted before) intelligent and articulate. He is also passionate and committed to his faith. He is delighted at the presence of the Judge at his bedside – and insists on calling her “My Lady” as she is addressed in court. Where others, considering him to still be a child, have all spared him the unpleasant details of the possible physical results of refusing a transfusion, My Lady, knowing that a considered decision on medical treatment must be informed, tells him what could happen. On hearing her description, Adam visibly exercises his imagination, takes account of what she has told him, expresses fear and distaste, and nonetheless insists that he stands by his decision. He holds a kind of moral intuitionism (“why is anything wrong?”), defining such acts as murder and marital infidelity as things you “just know” to be wrong. It’s a different form of moral philosophy from that which Mrs Justice May has previously expressed in the courtroom (a basic utilitarianism whereby one live child is better than two dead children) but it is perfectly defensible. Adam accepts the authority of G-d, scripture and the elders of his faith but, in expressing his belief in an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong he goes beyond parroting their words; he locates moral knowledge inside himself (inside the body he fears will be polluted by the transfusion) and thereby asserts ownership of his decisions.
“My Lady” finds him intelligent, reasonable and sincere. But far from being persuaded that those characteristics render him capable of making autonomous decisions which should be respected, she returns to the courtroom and issues a ruling which seeks to “protect” Adam from himself and from his faith. She uses the very characteristics he displayed in an effort to persuade her to respect him as an adult (his intelligence, charm and passion) to override him because he is a child. His life, as she assesses it, is too valuable to be lost.
Against his will, Adam is forced into a blood transfusion.
The court can legally violate Adam’s autonomy ‘in his own interest’ because he is a child. As Adam later discovers, there is no case in which a court has not ordered a child to be transfused: our legal system does not allow a child to be sacrificed to their parents’ faith. The question only arises here because Adam is so almost an adult. Which forces us to ask: what determines adulthood? Clearly not the attainment of a particular age, otherwise My Lady would not hesitate to rule – she wouldn’t need to leave the courtroom; Adam is not yet 18.
Ask it the other way: what are the features of childhood that make a child unable to determine his or her own best interests? Irrationality? The inability to be reasoned with? The inability to imagine the consequences of their actions? Adam is articulate and rational. He shows interpersonal skills, the ability to engage in moral reasoning and also imagination. (He can imagine pain and disability. Yes, the death he imagines is a romanticised death, with mourners weeping over his heroism. But it isn’t any more a romanticised death than the death thousands of soldiers imagine they will have on the battlefield; it’s also no more romantic than the poetry of W.B. Yeats, to which, My Lady introduces Adam and with which he falls immediately in love.) Adam is quite mature. He is not only intelligent (intelligence on its own, as I am arguing throughout this blog, doesn’t give you the ability to reason, to imagine, to relate to others, to understand the consequences of your decisions); he is also educated.
The problem is that he has not been educated in the way My Lady recognises or values. He can pick out a tune on the guitar, but doesn’t know how to identify the notes. He knows his Bible but he doesn’t recognise Yeats’ poetry. Not acknowledging that he has an education which enables him to claim moral maturity, My Lady “sides” with the white, male doctor and the white, male barrister against the black, female barrister, the less-than-middle-class father and the silent mother – and against Adam himself. (Incidentally, she doesn’t even pay attention to the two, (female, non-white) nurses who were debating Adam’s decision when she comes into the hospital to make Adam’s decision for him. Perhaps she doesn’t notice them.)
My Lady’s willingness to assert her power over Adam contrary to his own well-formulated and intelligently articulated will is, as I read it, a product of her highly privileged education – an education which leads her to assume that she can and will automatically make better moral decisions than those with a less privileged education. In her mind, because she is highly educated and intelligent, she must be right; Adam, his parents and his religion, insofar as they disagree with her, must be wrong. Her positional ability to make such a decision is also a product of her privileged education (there is a direct line between being able to play the piano, quote Yeats and reason in a particular moral language, and becoming a Judge). Less obviously, perhaps, the fact that she cannot imagine or foresee how her decision will affect Adam is result of that same privilege: she is so privileged, she cannot remember what it is like to be lying on your back in a bed while someone stands over you and makes decisions for you which show that what they think about what should be done to you matters more than what you think you should do. She cannot imagine being powerless.
Question: does My Lady make the right decision?
The next time we encounter Adam, he is leaving messages on My Lady’s voicemail, seemingly grateful to be alive, and grateful to her for having forced him to be alive. He is in love with the poetry of Yeats, with poetry in general, with the new world she has opened up for him.
Then he starts stalking her.
Adam’s relationship with his own parents and his own faith by this point is understandably fraught. His relationship with his own body has been compromised – he experiences it as in part someone else’s, since he has “their” blood. With nothing else to do, he follows My Lady to up and down the country and begs to be allowed to come and live with her (and her husband – apparently, it’s not meant to be like that.) He has questions he needs her to answer. Having lost the faith in which he was educated, having lost the security of knowing he has loving parents (who educated him in his faith and were willing to sacrifice his life to that faith), he wants to be educated by her; to gain entry into her world – a world of Yeats and accomplished musicians who can read the music, and of moral (or at least, legal) reasoning that is not informed by religious doctrine.
She sends him home.
Perhaps she is being deliberately cruel; perhaps she can see that it just won’t work – she doesn’t have time for a husband at home, let alone for a needy kid from a totally different class. But there’s another explanation. I bet it’s not an explanation the scriptwriter or director would have considered, but it’s there in my mind. It’s this: deep down, Mrs Justice May knows she has nothing to give Adam that will replace the world she has taken away from him. She has no relationship with her husband. Adam bets that whatever she believes in, “it’s not G-d” and if she does believe in something with redemptive power, she certainly never shares it with him. Her world of dinners and drinks receptions with the legal elite is patently vacuous (she can’t even bring herself to laugh at their jokes). Unlike her husband, she doesn’t even seem to have any extended family to care for or about. She has a piano, which she can play moderately well. But in the end, we’re back to exactly the same tired trope as we were given at the end of Sherlock: music (or music + poetry) as a replacement for everything else that makes life meaningful. A person who is extremely intellectually developed (and may well be rich and powerful, too) but so emotionally crippled that the only way s/he can relate to anybody else is through music.
My Lady refuses to take responsibility for Adam. That is to say: she refuses to take responsibility for the (foreseeable) consequences of the moral decision she made.
Which leads us back to a double question – (i) was that decision she made morally right, and (ii) did she have the moral right to make that decision. (Clearly, she had the legal right, but that is not necessarily the same thing.)
You’ll have your own views on both of these questions, but for what it’s worth, I think the decision My Lady made was consistent with (and limited by) a particular world view. That world view happens to be secular and materialist, and extremely snobbish about those who don’t share it – particularly those who don’t share it for religious reasons. It’s a world view which can conceive of no ideal (religious or political) which is worth the sacrifice of a physical life and it is one which tragically underestimates the importance of the spiritual, the emotional and the social – including (ironically) the extent to which those factors impact on physical health. That Adam’s leukaemia returns is entirely predictable – not just because the film is a work of fiction whose form necessitates a tragic end, but because (in real life, not just in fiction) non-consensual, intrusive medical treatment irreparably damages the relationship between the individual and his/her body. Because Adam was legally a child, My Lady was able to violate his autonomy and force him to live. When Adam turns 18, therefore, the only way he can assert his adulthood is by dying. Judged purely on My Lady’s own, utilitarian criteria (whether it effectively maximised health and happiness for the greatest number of people) her decision was surely the wrong one.
But it goes further than that: whereas Adam’s ultra-religious and unprivileged education enabled him to imagine disability, pain and (perhaps) death as potential consequences of his decision to refuse treatment, My Lady’s education into privilege meant she could not intelligently predict the likely consequences of her own legal decision. If moral maturity is the ability to think through and take responsibility for the consequences of one’s decisions, it’s ironic that My Lady neither foresaw nor took responsibility for the consequences of her decision.
Her assumption – and the assumption of all of us who consent, explicitly or implicitly, to the power of the secular, increasingly anti-religious state to override decisions made in good conscience by members of religious minorities – is that the kind of education we give our most privileged children (the ones who will grow up to be lawyers and judges; civil servants and MPs) is an education that will fit them to make moral decisions in the best interests of all those whose lives they will impact and control, in a multicultural and multi-faith Britain.
I think it’s time to rethink that assumption.