The biggest test for any free speech advocate is when someone says something that is so incendiary and close to the bone your reaction is to see red. It is interesting where you can come out when the mist clears, because no one should confuse the right to debate and listen to something with agreeing with what is expressed. Public office demands probity to what you say as Raheem Kassam makes clear about the likes of Sir Bob Russell denigrating the holocaust.
As I mention a very clear line that is also crossed is incitement to kill. We do however expect a decorum from elected representatives to uphold certain values – should they speak otherwise we are in our rights to demand they stand down from their position to make such remarks. Speaking in defence of the most vulnerable in society requires nothing less from us.
This moment where a personal button was pushed for me occurred with Colin Brewer, elected councillor in my county of Cornwall. Who may have allowed for my disabled brother to have been killed at birth, like a defective animal on a cost benefit analysis that an impaired human life may prove less viable than other public services. Like toilets.
For nearly thirty years I have seen attitudes in this country change so much for the better. From when as a child we would be asked to leave a public restaurant because my brother fidgeted in his seat. Now barely anyone batters an eyelid to his exuberant mannerisms, and those few that do are the ones that move. The disabled have become visible, and the support of the public to family carers like myself means the world. The Paralympics were celebrated in the UK not as a sideshow but as a main sporting event.
Yet I have to face some inconvenient facts with what Brewer has done.
Colin Brewer made his killed at birth comments in October 2011. He made them to Theresa Court, of Disability Cornwall. Her formal complaint two days later took nearly a year and a half to resolve, with the independent standards board finally ruling he needed to make an apology. When so ordered, he used a second class stamp, folding the letter into eight pieces. Throughout the process he saw no reason to apologise. One wonders he did not make use of origami to shape the letter into two fingers.
In February 2013, very much playing the hapless victim of the media, he resigned.
Yet he came back to stand in the following May elections where he won by a handful of votes once again as an independent candidate. Even with British public vilification, national and local media clearly stating his views of the disabled he was re elected, beating the Liberal democrat candidate by a handful of votes.
Election Candidate Party Votes %
Collin William Brewer Independent 335 25% Elected
Steve Knightley Liberal Democrat 331 25% Not elected
Roderick Harrison UKIP 208 16% Not elected
Adrian Darrell Jones Labour 161 12% Not elected
Brian Aubone Bennetts Conservative 150 11% Not elected
Sarah Hannah Maguire Independent 146 11% Not elected
If you cannot beat the involuntary euthanasia candidate, one wonders for the Wadebridge East political machine. With 42% turnout a passive electorate felt no need to ensure Brewer was defeated. Enough felt able to make him their representative again.
Yet Colin Brewer proved the creator of his own downfall in this interview published 8 May 2013, not even a week after reelection, given to Disability News Service (DNS). Here is part of that transcript, with DNS in black and Brewers’ remarks following:
Those are decisions about putting down a child with that degree of impairment might well mean more money for the wider community? “It might. It probably will.”
It does make an argument and a good argument for maybe ending the lives of some severely disabled children with severe learning difficulties? “I am not making that judgment. There may be a case. I haven’t a clue how much they cost. When people complain to me about the state of our finances, I say, well, we can’t afford to do it. We might be forced to close our beaches. That’s a service to us all. It is a dilemma and it is going to get increasingly a problem with budget cuts.”
Between services for disabled people and…? “Between all services.”
It does make an argument for putting down some severely disabled children? “Yes. That is why I keep as far away from health in the council as I can.
Reading the transcript Brewer is trying to sound like he values human life, then failing when there is a budgetary consideration to be made, or a defect. However it is unclear who he thinks should be making the decision at birth – the mother, the doctor, the state – regarding termination. And whether if deciding on living the state has a duty of care to support as budgets best can (an argument he poorly makes). The transcript reads like an interviewer giving Brewer enough rope to hang his political career. Yet that question of who decides is at the heart of the infanticide debate between parental rights, state eugenics and an absolute right to life.
You might think then that if there was a child with two heads, that might be where the line is drawn. It might be kinder to put that child down? “Is that one child or two? I would hope that although I don’t like the idea of it, long before it is born that this problem is [stopped] and it will probably be aborted in some way.”
And if it wasn’t? “Then if it wasn’t, then well, what happens?”
The lamb would be put down. “It would be put down, smashed against the wall and be dealt with.”
It might be as […] for a similar thing to be done for the child? “That would be up to the decision of whoever is there at the birth. It makes me wonder that some children have been aborted, some abortions are so late that the child is there.”
A possible police inquiry into whether an offence was caused in the above quoted interview, and a report by Cornwall Council criticising his remarks finally proved too much. On 10 July he handed in his resignation to the council.
Yet read the transcript. We had similar arguments at University when we covered Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics in Contemporary Philosophy though not with such one sided questioning. Free speech meant we considered the consequences of finite resources and rights to life issues. For the record, Singer says parents alone should make the decision and if they chose life they and the child should be fully supported – the philosophical discourse was emotional to get there as an undergraduate but worth the intellectual rigour thinking develops. I did not study to be told I was right in my thinking, but to scrutinise and be challenged so I knew how and why I stand for the things I do.
The ability to deselect a candidate maybe useful, but given Brewer was reelected not a useful mechanism in this case. The ability to talk openly about infanticide or euthanasia in general will be difficult and painful, especially for someone like me who devotes themselves as a full time family carer.
I doubt that Brewer will be prosecuted given this and not making clear who makes the decision on infanticide – journalists failed to see the significance in asking that question. His views made him unsuited for public office, and he has made the right decision in resigning though given his history without honour. Like Brewer I do worry what will happen if I as a carer die before my brother. My trust is that the good people of this nation would in that situation honour the choice I made in life and his quality of life to support and to do the best they can, and look out for his best interests. As a society we must ensure Winterbourne View never happens again – because the vulnerability of those with severe learning difficulties is what makes them a target for abuse and neglect.
I will be honest with you – we have a big ask ahead of ourselves here.
Related blogs: My autistic brother
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog