The New York Times often wears its heart on its sleeve, or, more precisely stated, on its front page. Important stories that undermine or offend the Times’s ideological or cultural predilections may receive page-16 coverage–if they are reported at all–while events of less national import that support the Gray Lady’s worldview sometimes receive unwarranted banner headlines.
The latest example of this phenomenon occurred on September 27, when the adamantly pro-euthanasia “paper of record” ran a front-page story about the assisted suicide in France of Vincent Humbert (“Son’s Wish to Die, and Mother’s Help, Stir French Debate“). Until then, most Americans had never heard of Humbert. He was, however, well known in France for writing President Jacques Chirac and asking for the right to be euthanized. He subsequently wrote a book detailing the suffering caused by his becoming disabled in an auto accident–he was blind, mute, and quadriplegic–and urging that euthanasia be legalized. The book was released just before his mother overdosed him with sedatives, spurring renewed interest in France about legalizing euthanasia.
The coverage of the Humbert tragedy by the Times and other media followed the dreary pattern usually seen in reportage of such stories. First, it was written to wrench the heart rather than engage the mind. Second, the killing was depicted unquestioningly as beneficent and compassionate. The implicit message: It should be legal to grant a man experiencing such terrible suffering the mercy of the death he desires. Finally, there was no exploration of the broader, big-picture issues that must be considered if we are to make a truly informed decision about a public policy as radical as legalizing euthanasia.
Bring up the issue of assisted suicide, and we suddenly are transported to Euthanasia World, an idealized land where euthanasia’s dark side is conveniently ignored. In Euthanasia World, money is never an issue, doctors make house calls, no one is ever abandoned or coerced, and every “death with dignity” is freely and carefully chosen just before natural death occurs and there is no other way to relieve unbearable suffering.
In fact, legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia would take place in the context of a harsher real world of abuse and neglect of the elderly, family dysfunction, relatives’ desiring to inherit property or collect on fat life insurance policies, and subtle pressures on the ill, disabled, or elderly to cease being a burden (“Gee Grandma, because of the nursing home bills, we can’t send little Timmy to college”).
Our medical-financing system is in disarray. Millions are without health insurance. Medicare and Medicaid are in financial trouble. HMOs are constantly cutting costs and sometimes quality of care. Our doctors are harried by too heavy caseloads. Nursing staffs have been cut to the bone by hospitals bleeding red ink. Meanwhile, many of our foremost bioethicists are pushing a “futile-care theory” that would allow physicians to singlehandedly cut off treatment to their most desperately ill and seriously disabled patients–offering an inducement to the quicker end of assisted suicide.
Then there is the widespread fear and loathing of disability, an ugly fact of modern life that gave the Humbert’s euthanasia much of its dark, seductive appeal. Many believe that becoming disabled is the worst thing that can happen in life. Perhaps this explains why Jack Kevorkian became something of a national hero as he assisted the suicides of about 130 mostly disabled people. Similarly, when a Canadian farmer named Robert Latimer murdered his twelve-year-old daughter Tracy because she had cerebral palsy, thousands of Canadians leapt to his defense, demanding that the “loving father” be freed. After a jury convicted Latimer of second-degree murder, the trial judge even tried unsuccessfully to circumvent the mandatory minimum legal sentence because he believed Tracy’s killing was “altruistic.”
Disabled people have noticed that–and are afraid because–their killers’ motive for murder is applauded as compassion and mercy. “People with disabilities are the target of the euthanasia movement,” worries Diane Coleman, founder and executive director of the disability-rights group Not Dead Yet, a national organization that fights against legalizing assisted suicide.
I asked Coleman for her reaction to the New York Times Humbert story. “The fact that this euthanasia was deemed worthy of front-page attention is consistent with the paper’s longstanding editorial policy that pretty much says, ‘Better dead than disabled.’ Yet, when 200 people, mostly motorized wheelchair users, recently endured the hardships of a two-week march from Philadelphia to the United States Congress demanding home-care services and freedom from nursing homes, the Times did not bother to cover it.”
Consider the irony. Coleman asserts that disabled people are likely to be supported if they express a desire to die, but may be refused access to the very services that could help them realize that their lives are worth living. Indeed, this crucial aspect of the Humbert case went completely unexplored by the Times and other media. “We know people similar to Vincent Humbert who have chosen to live,” Coleman told me. “So we would still ask, why did he want to die? Obviously, most people think they know the answer to that question, and he himself wrote about it, but it’s not simply that he was so severely impaired. You also have to look at the social situation.”
Euthanasia World isn’t the real world. People who advocate assisted suicide pretend that killing would be an enlightened, compassionate measure of last resort–rarely applied, and only to alleviate unbearable suffering. But Diane Coleman knows this isn’t true. She warns us that in the real world of human imperfection, euthanasia would be a dagger’s blade aimed at the very heart of the disabled community.