Bioethics Blogs

The Unusual Case of Ian Paterson and Criminally Harmful Surgery

Guest post by Alex Mullock, University of Manchester

On 28th April 2017 in the case of breast surgeon, Ian Paterson, the jury in Nottingham Crown Court agreed that in carrying out unnecessary and mutilating surgery the defendant had done what no reasonable surgeon would do.  Paterson was convicted of seventeen counts of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm (GBH) and three counts of unlawful wounding (under, respectively, sections 18 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861) against nine women and one man. These ten victims, however, have been reported to represent a tiny proportion of all Paterson’s alleged victims, a group that might amount to hundreds from his many years of practice in the NHS and private sector.

The “obscure motives” that compelled Paterson may forever remain a mystery but it is interesting that the charges against him relate only to patients he treated in his private practice.  This enabled the prosecution to create a narrative that suggested that financial gain could have been the motivating factor for Paterson’s crimes.  Without greed as a possible motive his actions are baffling, and the prosecution’s case, in alleging that surgery which Paterson argued was performed in the patient’s best interests actually constituted GBH or unlawful wounding, would be more challenging because of the medical context of the allegations.  Importantly, the medical exception to the criminal law – the principle that consensual surgery carried out by qualified professionals is legitimate (“proper medical treatment”) – means that there is an assumption that harm caused by surgery is not a matter for the criminal law because it is a risk that we accept in order to enjoy the benefits of surgical medicine.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.