Gender and Assisted and Acquiescent Suicide: A Suicidologist's Perspective

By Osgood, Nancy J.; Eisenhandler, Susan A. | Issues in Law & Medicine, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview
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Gender and Assisted and Acquiescent Suicide: A Suicidologist's Perspective

Osgood, Nancy J., Eisenhandler, Susan A., Issues in Law & Medicine

Pope John Paul II predicted that the great moral issue of the 1980s would be euthanasia.(1) His prediction has indeed proven to be correct. According to Humphry and Wickett, of all euthanasia cases reported between 1920 and 1985, seventy percent occurred during the last five years of this period.(2) Not surprisingly, the majority of people involved in these euthanasia cases were old. Sixty-four percent were over the age of sixty, while fifty-one percent were over seventy.(3)

Unlike euthanasia, in which consent of the victim is not necessary, assisted suicide implies the consent of and, in many cases, the request of the victim. The great moral issue of the 1990s is the issue of assisted suicide.

Assisted Suicide: Janct Adkins and Dr. Kevorkian

Dr. jack Kevorkian brought the issue to the fore when he participated in the suicide of Janet Adkins:

On June 4, 1990, 54-year-old Janet Adkins ended her life lying on a cot in the back of a Volkswagen van parked in a Michigan suburb. Aided by a retired pathologist, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Adkins was hooked up to his homemade |suicide machine.' She had a needle inserted in her arm, which first started saline flowing and, then when she pressed the button on the macabre death machine, sent first a sedative and then deadly potassium chloride flowing into her veins.

An active woman with loving children and grandchildren, Adkins had flown 2,000 miles from her Oregon home to Michigan to seek Kevorkian's assistance in ending her life when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Adkins was an active member of the Hemlock Society, an organization that supports legalizing assisted suicide in America. She made a deliberate decision to end her life rather than face the mental decline associated with senile dementia. Kevorkian, a long-time proponent of physician-assisted suicide, took that opportunity to use his suicide machine as a way of making a public statement to the medical community and the larger society that suicide is acceptable and that doctors should be willing to assist those who choose to die. Kevorkian was not charged with any crime, although a temporary restraining order was issued forbidding him to use his suicide machine again. Ignoring the order, Kevorkian helped two other women to kill themselves in October 1991. He was charged with firstdegree murder but the charges were dropped because Michigan had no law against assisted suicide.(4)

Since Dr. Kevorkian assisted Janet Adkins in 1990 with ending her life, he has assisted in the suicides of several more people. The majority of his "victims" have been middle-aged women.(5) If the Kevorkian cases accurately reflect the total of all assisted suicide cases,(6) then it would appear that individuals who die from assisted suicide are more likely to be older women.

The Case of Emily Gilbert

The most publicized case of assisted suicide was the case of Emily Gilbert, who was killed by her husband, Roswell.

On March 4, 1985, in their tenth-story condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a retired engineer named Roswell Gilbert, 76, loaded a pistol and shot two bullets into the brain of his ailing 73-year-old wife, Emily. The couple had been married more than fifty years. On May 9, 1985, after a jury of twelve deliberated for just over four hours, Gilbert was convicted of first-degree murder. Broward County circuit court judge Thomas Coker, Jr., in what is probably the most publicized case of mercy killing in history, sentenced Gilbert to twenty-five years in prison with no chance of parole. But on August 2, 1990, the governor of Florida granted Gilbert clemency, and at age 81, Gilbert, suffering from heart and lung disease, was released from prison in Lake Butler, Florida. A crowd of onlookers watched him walk out of the prison with his daughter holding his hand.

Roswell and Emily Gilbert, who were married in 1936, retired to Spain. After living there only a few years, Roswell noticed that Emily was having memory lapses and was sometimes confused, and she began complaining of pain in her back.

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