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GLOBE AND MAIL, JANUARY 8, 2005 Tsunami spotlight: Brad Searle holds son Lachlan and his wife,

Tsunami spotlight: Brad Searle holds son Lachlan and his wife, Jillian, right, carries Blake as they arrive home in Perth, Australia.

By Arthur Schafer

It's not as if she had scads of time to contemplate the philosophical niceties of her predicament.

One moment, Jillian Searle was breakfasting with her two young boys. The next moment, they were assaulted by the massive tsunami that washed over their hotel in Phuket. Trying to keep hold of both boys seemed to promise death for all three of them. Her decision was made in an instant. She clutched the baby and released Lachlan.

Choosing which of your children shall live, and which shall perish, must rank as just about the cruelest dilemma imaginable. Thousands of Canadian parents who saw or listened to the interview with Ms. Searle must have asked themselves, as I asked myself: "What would I have done in her place?" The truth is, of course, that none of us really has a clue. In real life, we have never faced a choice even remotely similar to the choice faced by Ms. Searle.

We may, however, have read William Styron's book Sophie's Choice, or seen the Hollywood adaptation in which a mother is compelled by a sadistic Nazi official to choose one of her children for immediate execution or else witness the execution of both. Some applauded while others condemned the mother, Sophie, for selecting one of her children to die in order that the other might live. But who could truly say they know what they would themselves do in such an extraordinary and terrifying situation?

Jillian’s Choice Globe and Mail, January 8, 2005


My personal fear is that in Jillian Searle's place I might become paralyzed with anxiety, thereby condemning both children to death. (I am one of those people marked out by nature as a "sinker" rather than a "floater" and share Lachlan's fear of water.) Or perhaps I would resolutely hang on to both children, accepting death for the children and myself, rather than "play God" by choosing which shall live and which shall die.

This much seems clear: Even those, such as this newspaper's own Christie Blatchford, who believe that Ms. Searle made the morally wrong choice, are being unreasonably harsh when they condemn Ms. Searle's moral character. She was compelled to react instantaneously. People who do their best in an emergency deserve to have some slack cut for them by those of us who judge from the safety and comfort of our living rooms. Or so I believe.

It is also worth mentioning that, when she released her grip on Lachlan, Ms. Searle attempted to transfer his hand to a nearby stranger. That manoeuvre didn't work, but Lachlan managed, by sheer luck, to grab hold of some floating debris, which saved his life. Thus, against the odds, mother and both children survived, though it won't quite do to declare that "all's well that ends well."

The classic legal case involving decision-making in extremis is the English case of The Queen v. Dudley and Stephens (1884). Dudley and Stephens were shipwrecked sailors who saved their own lives by killing and eating the flesh of the moribund cabin boy. They pleaded not guilty to the charge of murder, arguing that, since they faced imminent death from dehydration and starvation' the extremity of their circumstances justified what would otherwise have been a crime.

Chief Justice Lord Coleridge, in delivering his guilty verdict, was not unmindful of the "terrible temptation" faced by the sailors and their "awful suffering." He also acknowledged how difficult it would be for anyone deprived of food and water for many days "to keep the judgment straight and the conduct pure."

Having admitted that he could not vouch for his own conduct in such a dire situation, Lord Coleridge nevertheless sentenced both of the sailors to death.

Interestingly, the sentence given to both sailors was subsequently commuted by the Crown to six months' imprisonment. Law sometimes requires to be tempered by mercy.

Now, of course, Jillian Searle committed no crime whatsoever, except perhaps the "moral crime," as some would see it, of favouring her more vulnerable younger son over her almost as vulnerable older son. If one has to make a life-or-death choice, then choosing to protect someone because he's more vulnerable seems on the face of it to be a reasonable criterion.

Some philosophers have argued, however, that it is always wrong to make such a choice. They claim that, when the value of human life is at stake, it is "inherently" wrong for any human being to engage in a selection process. If all cannot live then, rather than "play God," we should allow all to die.

Jillian’s Choice Globe and Mail, January 8, 2005


I have put this proposition to my bioethics students over a period of many years, and to

conferences of. transplant physicians and surgeons. I have never yet encountered anyone who actually thinks that when a life-saving resource is in short supply – whether a kidney for transplant or a mother's hand for rescue – we should refuse to save as many lives as possible.

From the foregoing remarks, you will have concluded, correctly, that I think Jillian Searle made an ethically defensible choice; indeed, the morally right choice. But even if I am mistaken in this belief, I would still want to insist that it would be wrong to label her as a morally bad person or a morally inadequate mother.

Arthur Schafer is a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba.

By Margaret Somerville

The tsunami disaster seems so close in Australia, where I've been visiting. One Aussie told how he had been in the nightclub in Bali when the bombs exploded and he had escaped. Now, he was on the beach in Phuket when the sea exploded and once again had escaped. A friend remarked, "You wouldn't want to take your next holiday with him!"

But the story of Jillian Searle, the Australian woman who decided to let her five-year-old son go,

is discussed in hushed and serious tones. It's too awful even to think about.

What hasn't been discussed is the question of media ethics that it raises. Should the media have reported this, and in this way? What about when the child sees the footage in the future or when others recognize him as that child – the child whose life his mother chose to risk? A friend with whom I was watching the TV report, who has four sons, gasped and said, "That poor child. Now, he will always think his mother didn't love him best!"

She believes that a second child is often the mother's favourite, because she is usually more laid back, less aggressive, more affectionate than with the first.

As a young mother herself, she lived in many countries and recently found all the letters she had written to her mother while away – her mother had kept them. She said she wouldn't be able to show them to her sons who are now all in their 30s and 40s, because they might see she loved one son best – although she pointed out the favourite changed from time to time.

We discussed whether all parents have a favourite. We also spoke about whether everyone feels guilty about such feelings. I recently said to my 85-year-old aunt in Adelaide – my mother's younger sister, who was as much a mother to me as my mother – that my mother much preferred my younger brother. She agreed in a matter-of-fact way and said, "But you were your father's favourite, so that's fair!" But what about when such feelings get translated into life-and-death decisions as in this case? Could it be a survival mechanism that when both children can't be saved, at least one will be? Might the younger child be preferred because the relationship is less complicated and complex? Might mothers have to prefer a younger child who is more dependent and needy for that child to

Jillian’s Choice Globe and Mail, January 8, 2005


have any chance of survival? What if mothers just doted on the oldest and the others never had a chance?

Michael Meaney's work at McGill University on the genetic basis of certain behaviour – for instance, nurturing in rats – comes to mind here. Might we be genetically programmed to act in extreme situations where analysis is not possible so as to give all the children some chance of survival?

My grandmother was a Fitzgerald and her family crest shows a monkey with a broken chain around its neck sitting on top of a chimney with a baby in its arms.

The legend is that centuries ago when the family castle in Ireland was invaded and the family annihilated, the pet monkey broke its chain and snatched the youngest son from his crib and took him to the chimney top. Through that child, the family survived.

The most urgent ethical issue, however, is to stop the damage to this mother and her child – first do no harm – and to the extent possible repair it. There but for the grace of God go I – and that's all of us.