Jillian's choice

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"Jillian's choice",
Globe and Mail, January 8th, 2005, F6
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

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 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.

Ethicist Margaret Somerville holds professorships in both law and medicine at McGill University.