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Tuesday, 8 April 2008

When do personal rights have to be sacrificed?

You're a woman about to give birth. You are told you need a big blood transfusion, or you may die. However, your religion says you can't have a blood transfusion. You die. Your twin babies are delivered. They're fine. They're healthy. But they'll never have had a mother.

It's not a thought experiment in ethics, but a real situation. Twenty-two-year-old Emma Gough was a Jehovah's Witness, but died after giving birth to her twins at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in the UK.

There's just been an inquest into her death, but the coroner hasn't yet recorded a verdict. Did she in effect take her own life? Will it be a misadventure verdict? We should know later this week.

It will all be academic to the twins. OK, they will not miss their mother, because they'll never know what it's like to have one – not a biological one, anyway. She won't even be a memory. But they'll grow up in a world of kids who have mothers, and, while not all kids still have their mothers, this pair could have had theirs.

Coroner John Ellery said the inquest was an exploration of the circumstances of her death, not of her faith. And that is the way with inquests. They deal in facts, evidence. However, it was her choice of religion that motivated her to give up her life rather than accept blood, and that is a fact.

Contrary to what shrieking atheist bashers would have you believe, there are atheists – perhaps many atheists, perhaps most atheists – who believe people should be free to live according to religious beliefs if that's what they wish and if it's their choice, freely made. Religion may have brought good into some people's lives. For others it may have provided a model that's helped them work through problems.

But does that right extend to imposing its unwanted consequences on others? Discuss.

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