Should a devoted mother who kills her own son because she can’t bear his pain be lauded for her courage or be condemned as a monster? Should she be judged by conventional moral and legal standards or does her action, borne out of her compassion for her son, elevate her to an altogether higher realm where normal rules don’t apply?

That’s the debate (“A cold-blooded killer or a loving mum” as one newspaper asked) triggered by the story of a British working class mother who killed her 22-year-old son by giving him a lethal heroin to end his “living hell” after an accident left him brain-damaged and in a vegetative state with little hope of recovery.

The story of 57-yearold Frances Inglis, a trainee nurse, and her son, Tom, has dominated headlines in recent weeks. When she was jailed for life last week, it sparked a wave of sympathy for her and revived calls for a review of Britain’s current laws which ban assisted suicide or “mercy killing.”

The jury was heckled for rejecting her defence that she acted out of love for her son and simply did what he would have liked her to do if he were in a position to speak. The verdict was greeted with cries of “shame, shame” from Ms Inglis’s family members and, on the net, bloggers called for the concerned judges to be “sacked.”

Family support

While she herself showed no emotions except to insist that she was “not a murderer” and did “not regret” her action, her family — including her estranged husband and Tom’s girlfriend — hailed her as the “brave one,” and said they supported her “100%.”

“All those who loved and were close to Tom have never seen this as murder, but as a loving and courageous act,” her oldest son, Alex, said calling for a complete rethink of existing laws that affect people like Tom.

Questioning the life sentence handed down to Ms Inglis, one critic asked: “How is it in the public interest for Frances Inglis, by common agreement a devoted mother, to be punished in this way? She has not been proved evil and she is not a danger to society.”

Her friends, describing her as a “pillar of the community” who was always willing to help others, argued that she could not be treated as a common criminal.

“It has been said that she was obsessive and wouldn’t listen to anyone. But I defy anyone to see their child like that and not want to do the same. She took his hell,” Tom’s aunt Jean Bruin told a newspaper.

During her trial, which gripped the nation for weeks, Ms Inglis often came across as a figure from a Greek tragedy torn between her love for her son and the “society’s conventions,” as the judge, passing the sentence, noted.

“We can all understand the emotion and the unhappiness that you were experiencing. The fact is that you knew that you intended to do a terrible thing. You knew you were breaking society’s conventions, you knew you were breaking the law, and you knew the consequences,” Judge Brian Barker told her.

The court heard how this frail woman pursued with single-minded determination her resolve to put an end to her son’s suffering. After she failed in her first attempt to kill him in September 2007, she was arrested and barred from having any contact with him. But a year later, she struck again and this time succeeded in administering a fatal dose to Tom.

In the court, Ms Inglis sobbed uncontrollably as she recalled her despair at the “horror, pain and tragedy” of her son’s helpless condition.

“For Tom to live that living hell — I couldn’t leave my child like that,” she said denying that what did amounted to murder.

“I don’t see it as killing or murder. The definition of murder is to take someone’s life with malice in your heart. I did it with love in my heart, for Tom, so I don’t see it as murder….I believed it would have been Tom’s choice to have been allowed to die rather than have the intervention to keep him alive,” she said.

Victim of a system

Many see her as a victim of a system that while outlawing assisted suicide allows for the family of a coma patient to apply to the court to withhold his/her food and water — and if the court permits doctors can starve the patient to death by withdrawing the sustenance. When doctors told her that the only way for her son to be allowed to die legally was for her to go to court, she said she couldn’t “bear the thought of Tom dying of thirst or hunger.”

It is the latest in a series of cases where parents have secretly helped their terminally-ill relatives, including children, die. Last year, in a widely reported case parents of a young British rugby player Daniel James, paralysed after a training accident, agreed to take him to a suicide clinic in Switzerland to die in order to fulfil his desire.

Indeed, because of Britain’s stringent anti-euthanasia regime, it has become routine for terminally-ill Britons to travel abroad to die. While assisted suicide still remains illegal in Britain, under new guidelines relatives of patients who help them kill themselves would not face prosecution so long as they do not “maliciously” encourage them and are simply fulfilling someone’s “clear, settled and informed wish” to die.

A loving mum or a cold-blooded killer?