They call them "death angels" -- doctors or other medical professionals who stalk hospital and nursing-home corridors searching quietly for the sickest and most defenseless patients to secretly dispatch. The term is most unfortunate, carrying with it the implication that these premeditated killers of sick, disabled, and dying people are somehow doing their victims a favor by "ending their suffering." In fact, there is nothing angelic about presuming the right to decide that the time has come for another human being to die.
Lately, the United States has been experiencing something of a boom in so-called angels of death:
In Los Angeles, former respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar has pleaded not guilty to charges that he murdered six elderly patients at Glendale Adventist Medical Center between December 1996 and August 1997. Salvidar told the police that he killed more than 50 patients, a confession he has since recanted. Twenty former patients' bodies were exhumed, providing the evidence upon which to charge Salvidar with murder. The alleged serial killer is behind bars awaiting trial.
In September 2000, in Uniondale, New York, former physician Michael Swango pleaded guilty to killing three patients at a Long Island Veterans hospital with injections that stopped their hearts. Before allegedly killing his victims, he had placed Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders on their medical charts to prevent medical personnel from performing CPR. Swango received a life sentence.
In Oakland County, Michigan, where Jack Kevorkian used to play, hospice nurse Anne Nicolai, after "finding God," wrote an e-mail to her boyfriend confessing to having overdosed three of her elderly hospice patients with morphine. The body of one of her alleged victims, a woman who had Alzheimer's disease, was exhumed and the Oakland County Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide. As of this writing, Oakland County Prosecutor Dave Gorcyca -- who was elected on a plank of not prosecuting Kevorkian but who ultimately bagged Dr. Death after 60 Minutes aired a video of Kevorkian murdering Thomas Youk -- has not decided whether to prosecute.
In September 2000, Utah, a jury convicted psychiatrist Robert Allen Weitzel of two counts of second-degree felony manslaughter and three counts of negligent homicide, for the morphine overdoses patients at a geriatric/psychiatric unit Weitzel ran at the Davis Hospital and Medical Center in Layton. Weitzel's conviction was later overturned and he is free on bail awaiting a new trial.
In Springfield, Massachusetts nurse Kristen H. Gilbert is charged with murdering four of her patients and attempting to murder three others at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton. Gilbert is accused of injecting her patients with adrenalin to make their hearts race fatally out of control. As these words are written, the jury is deliberating Gilbert's fate.
The seeming increase in the number of medical professionals accused of killing their patients in recent years may be a mere coincidence. Then again, it may be the beginning of a trend. "We have actually gotten to the point where the predominate opinion in bioethics holds that people with a 'lower' quality of life have less moral value than 'normal adults.'"
This isn't idle speculation. The sanctity of human life is under as intense attack in this country as we have seen since those bad old days when the likes of Sen. John C. Calhoun promoted slavery as a positive good. Indeed, our country is currently steeped in a "culture of death" in which dying -- and even killing -- are promoted by bioethicists and assisted-suicide advocates as acceptable answers to the individual difficulties associated with serious illness and disability, the emotional and financial hardships sometimes generated by family care-giving responsibilities, and the "crisis" in health-care resources. We have actually gotten to the point where the predominate opinion in bioethics holds that people with a "lower" quality of life have less moral value than "normal adults."
These death-culture attitudes lead to actual medical policies that hurt real people. Most famously, Oregon has legalized assisted suicide where studies show that most who swallow prescribed poison do so in order not to "burden" their families. Meanwhile, beneath the media's radar, "futile care" protocols are being quietly implemented in hospitals across the country that arrogantly give doctors and ethics committees the right to refuse wanted life-extending treatment unilaterally if the doctor believes the patient's quality of life is insufficient to justify the cost of care. At the same time, cognitively disabled patients -- both conscious and unconscious -- are made to die slow deaths by dehydration in all 50 states by having their tube-supplied food and water withheld or withdrawn on the basis that their lives are no longer worth living. In such a cultural milieu, is it really surprising that some medical professionals would take the extra step of "mercy" killing dying, elderly, and disabled patients or that a few evil psychopaths would use "compassion" as a front for the fulfillment of their homicidal obsessions?
We need only look to the Netherlands for proof that widespread acceptance of the culture of death leads inexorably to non-voluntary euthanasia. The Netherlands has permitted doctors to kill patients who volunteer to die since a court decision essentially decriminalized the practice in 1973. Since then, Dutch doctors have skied down the steepest of slippery slopes, normalizing medicalized killing in the process. Today, Dutch doctors lethally inject dying people who ask for it; chronically ill people who ask for it; disabled people who ask for it; depressed people who ask for it; and, disabled babies whose parents ask for it.
More to the point of this essay, killing by Dutch doctors has not been limited to voluntary cases. Study after study of Dutch euthanasia have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one thousand people who have not asked to be killed receive lethal injections by their doctors each year. The practice is so common that the ever-rational Dutch have given non-voluntary killing a name: "termination without request or consent." The murders of tens of thousands of Dutch patients killed in the last 30 years without request or consent (for that is what such killings are considered technically under Dutch law) have led to only a handful of prosecutions, and no doctors have been jailed for the practice.
A case reported just last week in the British Medical Journal News illustrates vividly the license that country has given Dutch doctors to kill catastrophically ill and disabled patient -- even if they have not asked for euthanasia. Dr. Wilfred van Oijen, a Dutch general practitioner, was recently found guilty of murdering a dying 84-year-old patient despite her statements that she did not wish to die. The doctor said he killed the comatose woman because she had bed sores and was soaked in urine. But bed sores can be mostly prevented through regular turning and a catheter will prevent an incontinent patient from soiling her linens. Despite this, Oijen was not penalized, because the Amsterdam court ruled that he had merely made an "error of judgment" while acting "honorably and according to his conscience" when he ended his patient's life. (So much for "choice.")
We have not yet become so accustomed to medicalized killing in the United States that we are willing to countenance murder in our hospital wards. But we are moving in that general direction. Unless we begin to reassert the sanctity and inherent value of all human lives -- most especially of those among us who are dying, disabled, and elderly -- we may soon find that patients who need our protection the most will find themselves increasingly in danger of being hustled into an early grave by the very professionals they counted upon to do them no harm.