The Manly Art of Mercy Killing

Women targeted the most, researcher contends; euthanasia advocate disagrees

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 17, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Mercy killing is portrayed by euthanasia advocates as one person's desperate bid to end a loved one's suffering.

But new research has found two-thirds of those whose lives are ended that way are women, and the researcher says that raises a troubling question: Are women's lives worth less than men's when it comes to long-term care?

"In the United States, euthanasia tends to be presented as an issue of self-determination, autonomy, choice," said Silvia Sara Canetto, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Colorado State University. "But when you actually look at what happens, you have a person who is very ill, dependent on others for care, vulnerable and exhausted. If you perceive yourself as a burden, or others perceive you as being a burden, you could be seen as a good candidate for death."

As a result of her research, Canetto said she believed mercy killing and the further legalization of physician-assisted suicide are dangerous, particularly to older women.

"Many women do not have the resources, the sense of entitlement or the power and freedom to make the choice they desire, especially when they are sick and disabled," Canetto said. "And the freedom to be dead is a very peculiar freedom."

Faye Girsh, the president of The Hemlock Society, an organization that advocates legalizing physician-assisted suicide, disagreed with Canetto's conclusions, adding that the assumption that women can't say what they mean is absurd.

"To say women can't make this decision because they are somehow more vulnerable is insulting," Girsh added.

For her study, which appears in the most recent issue of Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, Canetto reviewed records of 112 mercy killings from 1960 to 1993 kept by The Hemlock Society.

The organization defines mercy killing as "the killing of a terminally or incurably ill person to put him or her out of perceived misery" without necessarily knowing "the intent of the suffering person." Its records include news reports and direct reports of mercy killings.

Canetto found that most mercy killings involved both sexes -- a woman and a man -- as opposed to two men or two women. Typically, a child killed a parent, or one spouse killed the other.

But in 70 percent of cases, the man did the mercy killing, she said.

"Men are more likely to kill themselves through suicide, kill others through homicide, and more likely to do what they consider mercy killing," Canetto noted.

About 92 percent of those who died were ill, Canetto added. And of those who were ill, about 35 percent were reportedly terminal, 15 percent were not, and the nature of the illness was unknown for the rest. People were most often killed with guns, followed by suffocation and poisoning.

The Hemlock Society contends that the real solution to stemming mercy killing is not to ban euthanasia, but to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

By bringing the discussion out in the open, families would not feel desperate and alone and resort to shooting a sick family member, Girsh said. Instead, the sick person and the caregiver could seek help and support from the medical community.

Girsh added that there is no clear gender difference in Oregon, which since 1997 has been the only state to permit physician-assisted suicide.

"The conclusion that the authors make is mistaken," she said. "If there were more legal options for people to have help in dying from a physician, it would reduce mercy killing, reduce the anguish in families and caregivers who have to watch the suffering and not know what to do."

In 85 percent of the cases, no one knows if the person asked to be killed. But even a request to die doesn't necessarily justify taking a life, Canetto argued. People may say they want to die because they are depressed and exhausted from an illness and are seeking comfort.

"When someone says, 'I can't stand it. I want to die,' there are many different levels to that," Canetto said. "What they may want is reassurance. They might be saying, 'Even though I can no longer walk, even though I am incontinent, I am still of value to you'."

Previous research has shown physical suffering is not the primary predictor of suicidal thoughts, Canetto added. Such psychological factors as depression, loneliness and the perception of being a burden weigh more heavily.

What To Do

If you are a caregiver and feeling overwhelmed, there are numerous resources available to help you. Look for local support groups at the National Self-Help Clearinghouse or for hospice programs at the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

For more information about end-of-life issues, such as writing living wills and making medical decisions, check out the Partnership for Caring or The Hemlock Society.

SOURCES: Interviews with Silvia Sara Canetto, Ph.D; associate professor of psychology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo.; Faye Girsh, E.E.D; president, The Hemlock Society, Denver, Colo.; September 2001 Omega: Journal of Death and Dying study
Consumer News