Marlowe's Shade

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Euthanasia Hall of Shame: Dr Harold Shipman

OK, I do have some qualms about including Dr Shipman in the Hall of Shame. For those who have never heard of him, he is not well known as a right-to-die advocate (at least in the same sense of the other Hall of Shamers), but his claim to fame is as the serial killer with the highest documented body count. He offically killed 284 of his patients and is suspected in hundreds of others. He used his comforting bedside manner to earn the trust and loyal of his patients and their families and then typically murdered them with an overdose of morphine. He was caught trying to forge a will that made him a beneficiary of one of his patients, but it appears that most of the time he killed his patients for the sake of killing. What has always been shocking about this case was the fact that he went so long without being discovered:

The public was angry that he'd been allowed to practice for so long without anyone noticing what he was doing, so the inquiry was launched, in part, to answer this question. Since healthcare serial killers (HCSKs) appear to have increased worldwide over the past two decades, people are demanding to know why vigilance has been so low and institutions have not been held accountable for hospital-based murders by practitioners. Given these new findings, it was clear that new procedures had to be put into place - especially in light of yet another report that demanded investigation.

So how does this monster merit inclusion with the leading lights of the euthanasia movement? While the comparison may seem at first unfair, some parallels are difficult for me to ignore. But first a little background. Most investigators point to the experience of his mothers dying as the event that he would act out again and again in a kind of sick psycho-drama in the murder of his elderly female patients. His mother was ravaged by cancer and Shipman witnessed the administering of the painkillers by the family doctor and reportedly became fixated on the role of the doctor as the godlike figure that meted out comfort and had the power of the ultimate anodyne: Death.

This was also the opinion of the prosecutor in his trial:

"He was exercising the ultimate power of controlling life and death, and repeated the act so often he must have found the drama of taking life to his taste."

And it seems that his addiction to this power was based on a very unhealthy obsession with death:

The official report speculated that the doctor was "addicted to killing" much like he was addicted to painkillers around the time the murders started. Like other death angels such as Dr. Michael Swango, the American doctor who killed patients in both Africa and the U.S., there was no hint of a sexual interest in his victims. Rather, as South Manchester coroner John Pollard speculated, Shipman "simply enjoyed viewing the process of dying and enjoyed feeling the control over life and death."

A fatal fascination with death, dying and drugs is consistent with the behavior of the 17-year-old Shipman who spent hours comforting Vera, his cancer-stricken dying mother. In the young man's mind, there was a powerful emotional connection between the visit of the family doctor and the relief that his injections of morphine brought to her suffering. Is it just a coincidence that he began abusing painkillers himself and shortly after he began practicing medicine, he used a lethal injection of pain medication to murder his first victim?

We see this same obsession with death in euthanasia practitioners, such as the ghoulish research of Dr Jack Kevorkian who photographed the eyes of patients at them moment of death, or Dr Philip Nitschke's admission that as a teenager he slit the throat of his neighbor's dog. And we are also reminded of George Felos' fixation on death as a release, but I think a distinction needs to be made between those who advocate euthanasia and those who actively participate in taking a life. This active participation requires a quality that I would say even the majority of right-to-die advocates don't have, for example Dr Ira Byock who will allow his patients to die of starvation and dehydration, or even encourage them to kill themselves, but stops short of physician assisted suicide.

But again, a it might be a fair point that comparing euthanasia practioners with a serial killer is inappropriate. But this anecdote suggests to me that they are perhaps not so different:

Among four additional patient deaths for which the commission found suspicious circumstances when Shipman was a young doctor was a girl only four years old. Susan Garfitt, a cerebral palsy patient, was at Pontefract on October 11, 1972, with a bad case of pneumonia. Her mother, Ann Garfitt, remembers Dr. Shipman telling her in a soothing voice that the child was going to die and that medicating her any further would only prolong her suffering. Mrs. Garfitt asked him to be kind to her child and then stepped out for a cup of tea. When she returned, a nurse told her that Susie had died. She was shocked, and in retrospect she wondered if Shipman had taken her request as an unspoken consent to euthanize her daughter. Given the circumstances, the inquiry commission decided that Shipman had likely given the child a lethal injection.

And this utilitarian attitude toward the dying is already familiar:

Some psychoanalysts speculate he hated older women, citing comments he made about the elderly being a drain on the health system.

Supporters of euthanasia and the Culture of Death can have different motivations, either based on New Age beliefs, or secular humanism. But if we consider the fact that even in the Netherlands where euthanasia is legal and doctors are protected from prosecution, the majority of the cases are unreported as euthanasia, hence not regulated. This kind of system is ripe for abuse and any of us who ever think they might be in a hospital at some point should consider the effects of the right-to-die movement on our medical system carefully. Currently our hospitals and other care facilities for the most part attract professonals that are committed to healing and compassion. Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in an ER, ICU or terminal ward can't help but realize that they are staffed with earthly angels that perform duties that most of us couldn't stomach with grace and loving-kindness. Healthcare professionals like my dear friend NY Nana and many others I know have told that they would never participate in the deadly environment that surrounded Terri Schiavo in her last days, or the policies of PAS and euthanasia that are increasingly being proposed. So if in the future these compassionate souls no longer staff our hospitals and hospices, who will? Ask yourself what kind of person would want to work in that kind of environment? And now imagine yourself in their "care".
papijoe 6:07 AM