Free Will and the Bomb, by Harper’s Staff

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May 1984 Issue [Readings]

Free Will and the Bomb

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From Medical World News, February 13.

A public meeting called by the doctors of Congresbury, England (a village near Bristol), has resulted in a vote that lethal doses of morphine should be made available to residents in the event of a nuclear war.

About 100 of the 4,000 villagers recently heard a lecture on the biological effects of nuclear war given by their general practitioner, Dr. Richard Lawson. They then voted 62 to 16 that their doctors should prescribe—on demand—an unstated but lethal dose of morphine tablets with an antiemetic. The prescriptions would be filled by the local pharmacist and the drugs would be held in a safe place, possibly a bank, until such time as a nuclear war seemed likely.

The villagers rejected a motion to make Congresbury self-sufficient for at least a year following a nuclear exchange by repairing existing shelters and stockpiling water, food, and fuel. “They felt that even if they were not hit, there was no point in making preparations,” said Dr. Lawson.

Carrying out the will of the meeting involves obvious legal difficulties. Dr. Lawson hopes to strengthen his hand by conducting a town wide poll; if that is not possible, he will poll his patients. He also plans to write to all relevant medical bodies, such as the British Medical Association and the Medical Defense Union, for their advice. “If I get the green light from them, I shall have no hesitation in prescribing,” he said.

“I am acting primarily not as a member of the peace movement but as a local family doctor,” he said. “I have come to this [decision] after private talks with friends. I discovered, to my horror, that many people had made plans to strangle or stab their children themselves—mainly because they were frightened of dying first and leaving their children to cope alone in a nightmare world. What I am offering is a kinder way.”

Though a false alarm could result in needless morphine deaths, he has argued that there would be many more deaths because of general panic incident to the announcement of an imminent attack. “I’m not in favor of euthanasia in peacetime, while there is a civilization and a pharmaceutical industry that at least offers one the chance of adapting to life,” ‘Dr. Lawson said. “But in a postholocaust age, where we will have no civilization, no pharmaceutical industry, and not even any morality, it may be the only practical and dignified thing to do.”

Dr. Lawson acknowledges a dilemma: having the option of suicide could “sap the will of the people who might want to resist the threat of nuclear weapons,” he said. “But children might be the innocent victims, so it is for them that we have put forward these proposals.

“A number of people thought I was joking at first,” he said. “They were denying the reality. My proposal has brought it home to them.”

A spokesman for the British Medical Association said, “It’s not possible for us to say whether what he proposes is ethical or not. He has raised a genuine ethical dilemma.”


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