Hospital shooting illustrates end-of-life issues, experts say
In coming years, more Americans will be wrestling with questions about whether, how, and when, to end their lives or the life of a loved one.
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Murder or mercy killing? One story that dominated headlines this week raised that question in a particularly dramatic fashion: An Ohio man is accused of shooting to death his ailing wife of 45 years, possibly as part of a "death pact" promise to prevent her from suffering.
In coming years, many other Americans will be wrestling with similar questions about whether, how, and when, to end their lives or that of a loved one.
"This is going to become one of the great social challenges of the next 20 years," predicted Arthur Caplan, one of the nation's foremost bioethicists and director of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Many Americans agree people should have greater say over end-of-life decisions in cases in which they've been diagnosed with a terminal illness, are in great pain and are expected to live only a few days or weeks, Caplan said.
But the Ohio case illustrates what can happen when the scenario is less cut-and-dried, Caplan said.
John Wise, 66, of Massillon, Ohio, allegedly walked into his wife's room at Akron General Medical Center last Saturday and fired a single gunshot at his wife. He was at her bedside when security arrived, and he was taken into custody without incident. Barbara Wise, 65, died the next day.
Law-enforcement authorities have declined to publicly detail Barbara Wise's medical condition and diagnosis other than to say she had a "very serious medical condition."
A family friend said she had recently suffered a triple cerebral aneurysm, and Wise's attorney, Paul Adamson, said her condition before entering the hospital had deteriorated so much that "there was a feeling she was never going to recover to any quality of life."
That may be enough for some people to conclude that end-of-life measures were warranted. (Although no one suggests using a gun.)
But taking someone's life to end his or her suffering — and doing so without a doctor's diagnosis of a terminal illness — raises thorny issues, Caplan said.
So do many other scenarios.
"What if you are just chronically ill or terribly debilitated" but nonetheless have many, many years of life ahead of you, Caplan asked. Should you or someone else in that condition be allowed to choose death?
"What if you have Alzheimer's but are not in severe pain?" Caplan asked. And what if you've told your family and friends that you do not want to live in such a state?
Americans increasingly will have to face such uncomfortable questions, in part because baby boomers are entering their later years. And just as their generation has transformed every other part of the U.S. culture, the boomers are expected to redefine death on their terms.
Caplan said medicine has made improvements in the area of palliative care, and some states allow for physician-assisted suicide, Washington, Oregon and Montana among them. Massachusetts will vote on a Death With Dignity Act in November.
Nonetheless, many Americans still live in fear that they'll have no control over pain and suffering in the face of death.
As for Wise, the Summit County grand jury is likely to decide by Aug. 22 whether he'll face a charge of murder for taking the life of the woman who was once his teenage sweetheart.
If he does face a murder charge, Caplan said, there is plenty to suggest a judge and jury will be sympathetic if the evidence points to a mercy killing.
"People who prosecute these cases have a very tough time," Caplan said.