A Problem Without Solution

I have been unable to get the story out of my mind since I read it earlier this month.

A 66-year-old former welder in Ohio took a taxi to the hospital where his wife lay in an intensive care bed, unable to speak following a stroke the week before. Hospital staff heard a pop and rushed to the woman’s bedside to fi nd that John Wise had just shot his wife of 45 years in the head.

“Please tell me she is dead,” he said to a doctor. The next day, she was.

Blessedly, this is not a common story.

Sadly, it is not a rare one either. Mr. and Mrs. Wise fit a documented pattern of an older man using a firearm to end the life of an older woman close to him, usually a relative, whose health he perceives as failing. There are many other human configurations as well.

Such actions are sometimes referred to as “mercy killings.” They arise from profoundly painful situations and spark controversy wherever they occur. Widespread public debate has been underway in Great Britain for several years, and the Wise case may trigger similar debate in our country.

Wise has been charged with aggravated murder, although the charges in and outcomes of such cases vary widely. Many are not prosecuted at all, sometimes because the person who causes the death is depressed or otherwise ill. Wise hi08-22-12-medical.gifmself is a cancer survivor, a diabetic, and suffers from nerve damage. Sometimes the person doing the killing is overcome physically and mentally by the unrelenting stress of caregiving. When such cases are prosecuted, juries are often sympathetic. Millions of families have coped with and understand the toll illness and incapacitation take not only on the sufferers but on those who love them as well.

Earlier this year, a New York man received a six-month jail sentence after killing his 98-year-old mother and attempting suicide himself. Authorities said the man had been diagnosed with cancer and was afraid there would be no one to care for his disabled mother. A Washington state man is awaiting his fate after shooting his terminally ill wife to death. He said she begged him to do so.

Donna Cohen, who directs the Violence and Injury Prevention Program at the University of South Florida, studies such cases and is at work on a book, Caregivers Who Kill. Cohen fears an increase in so-called mercy killings as millions of Baby Boomers age with longer life expectancies and spotty mental health services and respite opportunities throughout the nation. Watching a loved one suffer with nowhere to turn can be the trigger that sends an otherwise loving caregiver over the edge, she says. Difficult situations are complicated as well by a medical system that has the technology to keep people alive regardless of the quality of the life they are enduring.

Excruciating as some mercy killing situations are, American law has no provisions for the legal killing of another human being, no matter how much that person may be suffering.

Nor should it.

Physician-assisted suicide is legal under strictly limited circumstances in three states — Montana, Oregon and Washington. Any other killing is a crime everywhere, and with good reasons. Every religious faith I know of is clear that no person has the right to take another person’s life. In addition, people outside faith communities agree — because of the potential for abuse. Who has the right to make the ultimate decision for another? Who has the right to implement such a decision? How should such a decision be executed — literally?

The reality of mercy killing is as old as mankind. It has been practiced by health-care workers and on battlefi elds since before recorded history. I even read a British commentator who alleges that a gravely ill King George the V, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, was administered a lethal shot by his physician just before the doctor announced that the “King’s life is moving peaceably towards its close.”

We are now a very public culture, though, and there are few secrets and even less discretion. Pair current culture with longer life spans, fragmented families and communities, medical technology, and uneven medical access and we are here. John Wise and others have faced situations no one wants and cracked. Others will as well.

The answer is not changing long-held legal and moral concepts.

The best approach — for there is no real answer to this most agonizing human dilemma — is more thorough palliative care, more accessible respite opportunities and doing for others as we would want them to do for us.

In the end, we are all human beings and we all want to be treated that way.

Photo: American law has no provisions for the legal killing of another human being, no matter how much that person may be suffering.

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