Euthanasia and Women

Although more men commit suicide than women, in suicide attempts women outnumber men three to one. It is expected that women will use assisted suicide to kill themselves.
  • When mercy killings occur they are typically administered by men for women, with two-thirds of those killed being female.
  • When the time comes that they are in need of care themselves they tend to receive less assistance than men.
  • Women will be more affected by the euthanasia simply because women live longer than men, and in their old age command fewer financial and social resources.
  • Single childless women will end up living alone and in need of care, with no near family to look after them or protect their interests.
  • Women are less likely to receive critical, life-saving care, such as kidney transplants, than men.
Bias in medical treatment against disabled, and elderly persons is well documented and has been discussed on other pages on this website. Race and gender have also been shown to be factors in medical, as well as general, prejudice.

The experience in Oregan has shown that assisted suicide with lethal drugs is funded by some health insurance plans, or paid by the state Medicaid programme under “comfort care.” A prescription for a lethal overdose costs US$45, compared with the many thousands of dollars that would be spent on continuing health care.

Those who can't afford adequate health insurance are faced with a choice between assisted suicide or trying to find a doctor who is capable of providing pain management and palliative care. Not every doctor has been trained in these fields.

Derek Humphry, co-founder of the Hemlock Society has written in his latest book “Freedom to Die”, that “the hastened demise of people with only a short time to live, would free resources for others”.
br> He has claimed that economic necessity is the ultimate driving force behind the assisted-suicide movement.

Before co-founding the Hemlock Society with his second wife, Ann Wickett, Humphry assisted in the 'suicide' of his first wife Jean. He then wrote the book Jean's Way which, as it says on the cover of a later edition, "launched him on a campaigning career for the right to lawful physician-aid-in-dying."

When Ann Humphry was herself later diagnosed with cancer, she was summarily 'disowned' by Humphry and Hemlock, and ended up taking her own life.

Women more at risk
It has been pointed out that most of the prominent assisted suicide cases have been women. In the US there were Diane Trumbull, Janet Adkins, Marjorie Wantz and Terri Schiavo; in Canada, Sue Rodriguez; in Britain, Diane Pretty; in New Zealand, Victoria Vincent and Joy Martin; and in Australia, Nancy Crick, Sandy Williamson, Norma Hall and Lisette Nigot.

Following the death of Australian Nancy Crick, The Canberra Times published an article by Michael Cook, the editor of Australasian Bioethics Information titled Euthanasia: Women are the Losers

In his article, Cook points out that Australia's Dr Philip Nitschke, like America's Dr Jack Kevorkian, seems to be making a career of helping women to die. 1

Professor Silvia Canetto, at Colorado State University, is particularly interested in gender issues in suicidal behaviour and hastened death. She recently accessed three decades of information on mercy killing, from the Hemlock Society’s database in the United States.

Professor Canetto found, that when mercy killings occur, they are typically administered by men for women, with two-thirds of those killed being female. Most commonly, family members were involved in the death and death was most often achieved by shooting, suffocation or poisoning. 2

Suicide and Assisted Suicide
While more men than women commit suicide, for each male suicide attempt, there are roughly three attempts by women. The fear of being a burden is a prominent reason for women choosing to kill themselves.

Traditionally, women have been the carers in both families and society. When the time comes that they are in need of care themselves, they tend to receive less assistance from family members than men.

Professor Canetto, who has published extensively in the area of gender and suicide, suggests that “the taking of one’s own life tends to be seen as a masculine act, thus mercy killing appears as a more permissible way for women to commit suicide”. 3

Sidney Callahan, an author, lecturer, college professor, and licensed psychologist, in her paper, A Feminist Case Against Self-Determined Dying in Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, wrote that women would be " more affected by the euthanasia debate than men, simply by virtue of the fact that women live longer than men and, in their old age, command fewer financial and social resources." 4

Prejudice and Discrimination
Callahan points out that many women, especially those single and childless, will end up living alone and in need of care with no near family to look after them or protect their interests in medical decisions.

Because women have traditionally been conditioned to be less assertive than men, they may be at a loss when dealing with authority systems.

Callahan believes that women will "bear the brunt of any inadequacies in the system our society devises for the fragile old at the end of life. Feminists have long recognized the double standard of aging and are open to the worry that there may be a double standard of dying. " 5

Australian, Michael Cook, asks if Nancy Crick would have died if she had been a man.

According to Canetto, the preponderance of women in mercy killing cases, "may be related to broader social patterns of devaluing women's lives."

The Society for Women's Health Research has published an article indicating, that for women who have suffered a heart attack, there is gender discrimination in Intensive Care Units, where women must be sicker and have more risk factors to receive care on par with their male counterparts. 6

A 1998 study found that women aged 46 to 60 years had less than half the chance of receiving a transplant when compared with men of the same age and race. 7

Looking at the evidence it would indeed appear that women will need to be especially wary following legalisation of euthanasia and/or assisted suicide.

References:

  1. Michael Cook, "Euthanasia: women are the losers", The Canberra Times 28 May 2002
  2. Buhrer, Colleen “Women shown as typical mercy killing targets”, The Collegian 25th October 2001. http://collegian.colostate.edu/home.asp?ArticleID=7815. Reference: Canetto, S. S., & Hollenshead, J. D. (2000-2001) “Older women and mercy killing” Journal of Death and Dying, 42, 83-99.
  3. Buhrer 2001 op cit  
  4. Callahan S. “A feminist case against assisted suicide and euthanasia”, The American Feminist Summer 1999.
  5. Ibid
  6. http://health.yahoo.com/centers/women/19238186
  7. Kjellstrand, C. M. "Age, sex, and race inequality in renal transplantation"Arch Intern Med Vol. 148 No. 6, June 1, 1988